When preparing for natural childbirth, like preparing for any new experience, it can be tremendously helpful to educate yourself on what to expect. If this is your first baby, or if you are planning to experience labor for the first time, learning about what childbirth usually looks like can help you feel more prepared to manage each stage of labor as it comes.
Labor is broken down into three commonly accepted stages.
During the first stage of labor, your body prepares for your baby to be born. This stage includes any prodromal labor (“false labor”) you may experience, as well as the very early labor when signs may be less (or not at all) obvious. Stage one of labor is defined as the time when:
- your cervix tilts from a posterior positioning (pointing towards your back) to an anterior position (more forward)
- your cervix effaces (thins) and shortens
- your cervix goes from its usual firm state to a soft consistency
- your cervix dilates, expanding from a closed position to an opening of ten centimeters
- your baby drops and becomes engaged in your pelvis
The first stage of labor is an enduring process that may begin in the final months of pregnancy and progress throughout that time. Since there are many pieces to stage one, it can be further broken down into phases (listed below).
Your cervix may become soft and even start dilating near the end of your pregnancy. You many notice mild pulses of tightening in your uterus (contractions or rushes) that help your body to be more prepared for labour. These contractions, often referred to as ‘Braxton Hicks’ contractions are nothing to worry about, as long as they are not accompanied by other signs of labor, do not become regular, and don’t increase in intensity. Your body is just getting a head start on your first stage of labor. The early phase of this stage can feel frustrating to some women as it can sometimes feel that “true labor” will never really start and that you’ll be pregnant forever! Don’t throw away your plans for an unmedicated birth by worrying and trying to manipulate your labor with an unnecessary induction.
During this phase it is best to continue with daily activities and distract yourself with projects as much as you can so that you are not analyzing every sensation. Some healthy distractions may include: preparing your house fully for the arrival of your baby, stocking the freezer with healthy meals for your postpartum period, making a scrapbook for your baby, listening to hypnosis recordings that prepare you for labor and birth, and going on long relaxing walks.
While these irregular contractions can feel irritating as you are excited about meeting your baby, try to stay fully present and grounded in your body, and release any worries through deep breathing. Pregnancy and labor teaches us that nature has plans of her own and that interference is usually unhelpful.
Once your baby is ready to be born, early labor will pick up in intensity. You can expect:
- your rushes to become regular and stronger
- your cervix to continue shortening, softening, and thinning
- your cervix to open to 4-6 centimeters
During early labor, you will likely be able to continue your day-to-day tasks. You may need to pause during rushes, but chances are good you’ll still be able to talk and laugh through them. It is a great idea to rest, eat nourishing & carb-rich foods, and enjoy as much intimacy with your partner as you can during early labor. Labor progresses best with good vibes, low lighting, and a calm & private atmosphere.
Sometimes, early labor is long. This is called prodromal labor. For some women, labor can take several days to really ramp up. Try to get as much rest as possible and not be tempted by tips and tricks to get labor going—these usually result in you being more uncomfortable (and still in labor).
Through prodromal labor, we learn a lesson of patience and trust. We have to trust the process of birth, trust that we can endure, and trust that our babies will come in their time. Your body is doing good work, slowly but surely. Remember that all of this hard work is for a higher purpose—the birth of your child.
As your rushes build in intensity, they will require more and more of your attention. This is the phase when your hypnosis techniques will seem the most valuable. You may want to utilize other comfort measures during active labor such as counter-pressure, hydrotherapy (including baths, showers, and soaking in a birth pool), massage, and breathing techniques. If you have a doula, it will be their task to comfort you, or help your partner comfort you and keep you centered, in the ways that you prefer.
When experiencing the second phase of Stage 1 you will:
- become almost or fully dilated
- need to focus more of your attention on your rushes
You will come to know your own determination, capacity for focus, and endurance during this second phase of the first stage. In this phase, we are reminded that challenge leads to reward, and that birth is a journey to the most glorious of rewards.
The final phase of Stage 1 is transition. Many women experience transition as a very intense phase, and sometimes “otherworldy.” You may want to quit. You may feel strange, out of control, and like you want to escape your own body. Firm, confident support will be invaluable during transition. No matter how focused you have been and how practiced you are in your visualization, you may need someone to help ground you during transition.
Your partner can hold you tight and remind you of the techniques you have previously found helpful, or just look you in the eyes and remind you that you’re safe, they’re here for you, and this will be over soon.
Transition is a time of surrender. Like the trials of life, we come to a point where we do not know if we can go on. We aren’t sure what to do and have so little energy left that we want to give up. We fear that we can’t continue, no matter how strong our resolve has been. Transition reminds us to let go and trust in our bodies and in nature, or in whatever higher power we believe in. Transition teaches us that we can endure, overcome challenges, and do more than we ever thought capable.
Transition is the entry point into the deepest initiation and rite of passage that you can undergo as a woman. Soon every single cell of your body will change so that you can be born anew as a mother.
Stage 2 is widely accepted as the pushing and birth phase of labor. During the second stage:
- you will push your baby down through the birth canal by bearing down (Some women experience this as an enormous energy that is pushing through them, and that somehow they are just along for the ride.)
- your baby will continue farther and farther down through the birth canal
- your baby is born!
Stage 2 may be accompanied by a sense of relief and renewed purpose. You’ve made it through transition and may have even gotten a little break from your rushes. This is because when the sacred birthing process is respected, there is often a 20-30 minute pause between being fully dilated and being ready to push. It’s important to know that there is nothing “wrong” with your labor if you experience this pause. This is a time for you to regroup, gather yourself for the last leg of the journey and even get a tiny bit of rest.
Many women describe an urge to push when this time comes, much like needing to have a bowel movement. Sometimes women experience what is often called “the ring of fire” as the baby is crowning. This can be felt as a burning sensation as the perineum is opening. You can work more easily with this by doing a “puff puff” type of breathing- short and fast exhalations out of your mouth as you are stretching. Your doula or midwife may also want to support you with a warm compress as you are opening to prevent tearing.
Hormones shift during this phase and you will receive a boost of adrenaline that will help you focus and work physically hard with each rush to move your baby down, out, and into your arms. You may experience this phase as the most primal part of labor, when you get in contact with your inner animal. It can be helpful to make deep moaning sounds, rather than high pitched screams, to direct the energy down and out.
During the third stage of labour:
- you will birth your placenta
After your baby is born, you will continue to have small pulses of tightening that will cause your placenta to separate from the wall of your uterus. Your doctor or midwife may ask you to push gently to help deliver your placenta. They will then check it to make sure that all of it has been safely expelled.
During Stage 3, it is extremely important to have an undisturbed first hour with your baby, unless there is an emergency. This helps with bonding and positive emotional and psychological imprinting on you and your baby. Eventually your baby will make his or her way to your breast and begin to smell and lick. This bonding period will help your body produce more oxytocin, encouraging your uterus to keep contracting to release your placenta. Breastfeeding immediately after birth may also reduce the amount of blood you lose, thanks to those continued contractions.
As you prepare for labor and birth, you should also prepare to learn and grow from the experience. Birthing a baby is a time of discovery, strength, and resilience. It is also a time of surprise, no matter how well you prep in advance. Go into it knowing that you don’t know, trusting your body to do what it needs to bring your baby outside of your womb. Nature has developed a perfect plan to prepare you for parenthood—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Have confidence in that plan, have confidence in yourself, and come out the other side with your spirit renewed.