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Stages of Labor

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There's a reason why the birth process is called "labor": It can be hard work! Fortunately, Mother Nature has given you everything you need to do the monumental job of giving birth to your baby. While the process of labor and birth has its own sensations and rhythms for each woman, there are some basic stages-three, to be exact-that all women go through during a vaginal birth. Here's what you can expect from the first contraction to the grand finale.

First Stage

During the first stage of labor, the cervix (the narrow opening that separates the vagina from the uterus) prepares itself for the birth of the baby. It does this in two ways:

1) The tissue of the cervix effaces, or thins. Effacement begins as a softening of the tissue, which is normally firm, and ends when the tissue is flush with the walls of the uterus.

2) The cervix opens up, or dilates, to 10 centimeters in diameter. But this doesn't all happen at once. It occurs gradually, in phases: an early phase, an active phase, and a transition phase.

Early Phase

What happens: Contractions start out slow and mild. They may occur at 20- to 30-minute intervals. In the early phase, the duration (length) of a contraction is usually less than a minute. Toward the end of this phase, the contractions become more frequent, close to five minutes apart. By the end of this phase, your cervix will dilate to three centimeters and efface quite a bit.

How you might feel: The early phase is an exciting time for most women. You may be surprised that labor has really started and eager to get things under way, yet still somewhat apprehensive about the task ahead. Luckily, for most women labor begins slowly and gently, so you have time to get used to the process. Early labor contractions feel like menstrual cramps or the Braxton-Hicks contractions you had in late pregnancy. As the contractions come closer together, they may become more uncomfortable.



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