Signs, Symptoms & Stages of Labor

The signs and symptoms of labor & tips to help manage pain during the stages of labor.

    Signs, Symptoms & Stages of Labor

    Select a Topic

    1. What is Labor?
    2. What are the Signs, Symptoms
    3. Help for the Signs, Symptoms
    4. More Information on the Signs,

    What is Labor?

    Pregnant women are often very fearful and experience anxiety about going into labor and giving birth. Thoughts of whether you will be able to endure the pain or any complications that may arise during the delivery process may keep you preoccupied prior to the onset of labor. Each labor is different, and the experience varies from woman to woman.

    Make sure that you are well prepared to handle the big day by having proper prenatal care, attending childbirth classes, discussing pain relieving options with your obstetrician and having the unconditional support of your partner throughout your pregnancy.

    Braxton-Hicks contractions are referred to as false contractions, and are often confused with real labor. Pain is seldom experienced but they may be quite strong and regularly spaced. These contractions prepare the uterus for labor, and they may actually harden and lift your stomach. First-time mothers often have a hard time distinguishing between false contractions and real labor and find themselves rushing to hospital, only to be sent home again.

    What are the Signs, Symptoms & Stages of Labor?

    Early symptoms and signs of labor

    Early symptoms and signs of labor include:

    • Baby drops or engages into pelvis (known as lightening)
    • Abdomen looks lower and more protruding
    • Menstrual-like cramps
    • Backache
    • Diarrhea or flu -like symptoms
    • Braxton-Hicks contractions (false contractions) during the last week of pregnancy
    • Frequent urinating
    • Frequent bowel movements within 48 hours of labor
    • Indigestion, nausea or vomiting a day or two before labor begins
    • Sudden burst of energy 48 hours before labor starts
    • Increased vaginal discharge
    • Small blood-stained discharge
    • Contractions
    • Water breaks


    First stage of labor – the dilation of the cervix

    During this stage of labor, thinning of the cervix occurs and it is completely dilated to around 10cm. Different phases known as the latent, active and transitional phases occur during the first stage:

    The latent phase

    In this phase, thinning of the cervix may occur over a period of weeks, days or hours. It may be accompanied by mild contractions which may be regular or irregular – sometimes you may not even be aware that you are having contractions at all. This part of labor is the least painful but the longest. Rest and relax at home until the contractions become more painful and regular.

    The active phase

    During this phase contractions are strong and painful. The cervix is dilated to around 7cm. They are about three to four minutes apart and last for as long as a minute. You may feel restless, find it difficult to stand, or shift birthing positions. If your water breaks or you notice vaginal bleeding, this is the time to go the hospital.

    The transitional phase

    The contractions are more frequent, longer, intense and painful during the transitional phase. The contractions are also closer together than before as the baby moves down. Usually, the cervix may take around an hour to dilate to the final 3cm. During this phase you are nearing the delivery process and may feel increasingly agitated, irritable, frightened and fatigued. You may also feel a strong desire to visit the toilet as the baby’s head presses against the rectum.


    The second stage of labor – the delivery of the baby

    During this stage, the actual birth process occurs. When the cervix is dilated to around 10cm, the uterine contractions are usually regular but may slow down to every two to five minutes and lasting 60 to 90 seconds. You may feel the need to bear and push as each contraction intensifies. There may also be the need to change positions many times before you reach one that is comfortable. Immense pressure may be felt in the rectum as the baby’s head presses against it.

    As the baby moves through the vagina, especially as the head crowns, a burning or stretching sensation is often experienced. As the head emerges, the medical team will turn the body to deliver the shoulders and the rest of the body will slip out. If the head appears quickly, your obstetrician may make an incision in the perineum (episiotomy) or tell you to push more gently or to stop pushing so that the baby’s head can stretch out of the vaginal opening and perineum – this will keep the perineum from tearing.


    The third stage of labor -the delivery of the placenta

    Shortly after you have given birth, the uterus contracts again. It gently loosens and pushes out the placenta or afterbirth This stage usually takes about five to ten minutes.


    Help for the Signs, Symptoms & Stages of Labor

    Various medications to relieve pain may be administered during labor and delivery. These include analgesics, tranquilizers, local form of anesthesia, general anesthesia, epidural block, or spinal block. Every woman’s pain threshold is different and it is important that you have an in depth discussion with your obstetrician regarding pain relief. However, any pain reliever that you take during labor will affect baby too, so remember that there are natural options available to ease pain and create a comforting environment.

    More Information on the Signs, Symptoms & Stages of Labor

    Tips to cope with labor

    There are several things that you can do to relieve the discomfort associated with the onset of labor and these include:

    • Have continuous labor support from a midwife, doula, nurse or childbirth educator throughout the childbirth process – this will help to ease your fear and feel more control
    • If you feel a sudden burst of energy a day or two before going into labor, remember that this is nature’s way of preparing you for labor, so try not to use up all this energy
    • Practice deep breathing exercises to relieve the pain
    • Reduce the pain by distracting yourself through imagery and visualization techniques (you may also try using a calming music cd during labor)
    • Allow your partner or husband to assist in labor massage – rubbing your back or giving you a foot rub to lessen pain and discomfort
    • Soak in a tub of warm water or have a shower to ease the stress and tension
    • Urinate and empty your bowels frequently – this is the body’s way of preparing you for labor slow and difficult labor
    • Drink plenty of fluids during labor to prevent dehydration and also keep the kidneys functioning well. Dehydration can also cause premature labor.
    • Walk and move around between contractions can also help reduce stress, anxiety and pain
    • Suck on ice chips or hard candy