All About the Stages of Labor and Delivery

As you near the end of your pregnancy, you may be curious about the various stages of labor and delivery and what lies ahead. How many stages of labor are there and what should you anticipate? It turns out that each of the three stages of labor (with four phases in total) is a different experience, as is the transition between them. Read on to learn more about the first, second, and third stages of labor, and in which of these you’ll meet your new baby!

How Many Stages of Labor Are There?

Childbirth, which consists of labor and delivery, is divided up into several phases. Many parents-to-be wonder how many stages of labor there are; are there three or four? This can be tricky to keep straight, but there are three labor stages, with the first stage divided into two phases:

  • Stage One: Labor

    • Early labor

    • Active labor

  • Stage Two: Pushing and delivering the baby

  • Stage Three: Placenta delivery

Below we’ll go into depth regarding each stage of labor and delivery so you get a better idea of what to anticipate. Just remember that every birth is unique, so what is considered a typical labor and delivery might not be exactly what you’ll experience. You may also want to check out some tips and advice to help prepare for labor and delivery.

What Is the First Stage of Labor (Stage 1)?

The first stage of labor has two phases: early labor and active labor. When does labor start? It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact start of labor, but it’s typically when you’re timing contractions and find that they are occurring every 5 to 15 minutes, lasting around 60 to 90 seconds. As for early labor vs. active labor, the transition between these phases usually happens once you’re dilated to 6 centimeters. Though there’s no stage called “prelabor,” you can consider early signs of labor, such as having contractions that are shorter and set further apart, to be the time before labor officially begins.

What Is Early Labor?

Early labor is when your contractions start to occur at regular intervals and your cervix experiences dilation and effacement. It’s the start of the birth process, and you’re probably not at the hospital yet. In early labor, your contractions

  • are about 5 to 15 minutes apart

  • last 60 to 90 seconds.

As early labor progresses, those contractions will get closer and closer together. You might not know what contractions feel like if you’ve never experienced them before, so you may not know what to anticipate. Unlike Braxton Hicks, which are false contractions, true contractions feel like pain or pressure and occur like this:

  • Pain or pressure starts in your lower back, moving around and toward your lower belly.

  • Your belly might feel tight and hard.

  • In between contractions, you will likely feel the same area relax and soften.

So, how long does early labor last? The first stage of labor tends to last the longest. No two pregnancies are the same, so it’s helpful to consider the entire first stage of labor as one interval. If this is your first delivery, the average labor time for this phase is 6 to 12 hours. It can be longer, of course, lasting up to 20 hours for first timers.

If you’ve given birth before, labor tends to be a little shorter but could still last up to 14 hours.

Early Labor: What Can You Do?

As far as stages of birth go, this initial phase of labor is an exciting time. It’s when everything starts to feel real! So, what can you do to support yourself during early labor? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Take a stroll.

  2. Relax with a bath or shower.

  3. Play music that helps you calm down.

  4. Practice any relaxation techniques or breathing methods you’ve learned.

  5. Move often, changing your position.

Tips for Labor Partners

During the active labor phase, you as the labor partner can help facilitate those relaxation and breathing exercises. Other ways to help include applying firm pressure onto your partner’s lower back and massaging it, flexing their feet to help relieve cramping, and acting as the focal point during contractions.

What Is Active Labor?

After this first stage of labor comes the transition to active labor. When does it start? Though everyone is different, the signs of active labor are when your

  • contractions are stronger

  • contractions are closer together

  • cervix is dilated at 6 centimeters.

When these three conditions occur, it could be time to head to the hospital or birth center. That’s because during active labor, things can move quickly, and your cervix dilates rapidly during this labor stage.

Before you check in, the staff will determine whether you're in true active labor by taking steps such as tracking the timing of your contractions or performing a pelvic exam. Your medical team will also be checking your vital signs, your baby’s position, and your little one’s heart rate.

Though one of the most important active labor signs is dilation of 6 centimeters, it’s during this labor stage that your cervix will continue to dilate to 10 centimeters. Active labor can last as little as four hours or as long as eight hours or more. Other signs of active labor include:

  • Your water breaking (if it hasn’t already)

  • Stronger contractions that are two to three minutes apart and lasting anywhere from 30 to 70 seconds

  • Back pain

  • Leg cramps

  • Feeling nauseated

  • An urge to push (but it’s not time for that yet!).

Active Labor: What Can You Do?

The process of giving birth, especially during active labor, can be a waiting game. You’re waiting for your cervix to be 10 centimeters dilated before you can move on to the second stage of labor, which is pushing and delivery. So, what can you do during these active labor hours? After checking with your healthcare provider and getting the OK, you could do the following:

  • Practice relaxation techniques and breathing exercises you may have learned in your childbirth classes

  • Walk the halls of the hospital or birth center

  • Take a shower or sit in a water bath

  • Pee often to empty your bladder

  • Resist the urge to push (pushing too soon can cause swelling, pain, and tearing)

  • Sip clear liquids, such as water, fruit juice without pulp, tea, etc., but avoid eating any solid food.

Tips for Labor Partners

During the active labor phase, you as the labor partner can help facilitate those relaxation and breathing exercises. Other ways to help include applying firm pressure onto your partner’s lower back and massaging it, flexing their feet to help relieve cramping, and acting as the focal point during contractions.

What Is the Second Stage of Labor (Stage 2)?

During which stage of labor is the fetus delivered, many parents-to-be wonder? That would be stage 2—surely the most exciting phase of giving birth! This birth stage includes pushing and delivery and begins when you’re 10 centimeters dilated and labor pains intensify. As every labor experience is different, it's a good idea to discuss pain management with your healthcare provider beforehand, such as when you're preparing your birth plan.

If you’re having a vaginal birth, you'll know it’s time to start pushing when

  • Your healthcare provider confirms that you’re fully dilated

  • Your body feels the urge to start truly pushing

  • Your contractions feel a little different, stronger and more painful, coming about every two to five minutes and lasting 60 to 90 seconds.

Though this stage of labor is often shorter than the first stage, lasting anywhere from mere minutes to two or three hours, it’s intense. If you’re a first-time parent pushing for more than three hours, or if you’ve given birth before and pushing for more than two hours, your healthcare provider may suggest

  • an assisted vaginal delivery (using forceps or a vacuum device)

  • turning your baby into a better birthing position (if, say, the baby is in a breech position)

  • a cesarean section.

However, if you opt for an epidural, this stage may be allowed to go on longer without the interventions listed above, as long as your body is making progress.

Second Stage of Labor: What Can You Do?

Unlike the first labor stage, this phase is all about pushing, so you’ll be with your healthcare provider and medical team (and labor partner if you opt to have one), settled in your desired delivery position while listening to their instructions. Here’s how stage 2 of the birth process typically goes:

  1. When contractions occur, you'll be instructed to bear down on them while pushing.

  2. As your baby’s head appears, you might feel stinging or burning as the opening of your vagina (perineum) stretches, which is totally normal.

  3. Once your little one’s head is completely out of the birth canal, you’ll continue pushing as instructed to deliver each shoulder.

  4. After the shoulders are out, things tend to go fast, and your sweet new baby will be delivered fairly quickly at this point.

  5. Your healthcare provider will check your baby, and then they or your labor partner will cut the umbilical cord.

Tips for Labor Partners

Stage 2 is often the hardest stage for your partner, so being there for them is important. Supporting their body (depending on the birth position) will help them along the way, as will simply holding their hand and offering encouraging words. Discuss what kind of support they’d like ahead of time, so you know what to do, and know that they might change their mind!

What Is the Third Stage of Labor (Stage 3)?

Stage 3, the last stage of labor and delivery, occurs when your baby is fully delivered, and it’s time to push out the placenta. In terms of what to expect after giving birth, this labor stage, which is the shortest stage, could last up to about 30 minutes or so. You’ll still feel contractions but they’ll be far less painful and much closer together. Their purpose is to help the placenta detach from your uterus.

  1. Once separated from the uterus wall, the placenta moves down into the birth canal and eventually to the vagina. Once again your healthcare provider will instruct you to bear down and push. The provider may even assist you by gently guiding the placenta out.

  2. Once the placenta is out, you still might feel some contractions in your uterus. The body is truly amazing, as these contractions help the uterus slowly shrink and naturally seal the blood vessels. Your healthcare provider might give you some medication or massage your stomach to help with this process so as not to lose too much blood.

Tips for Labor Partners

This is the fastest and likely less painful stage of labor, but it’s still a stage. Perhaps you’ll want to hold and admire the new baby, but don’t forget about your partner! Holding the baby is definitely a way to help, but if the little one is off getting tests, you can support your partner through their final contractions and pushes. You can wipe their brow, massage their shoulders, and offer encouraging words.

How Long Does Labor Last?

How long does it take to push a baby out? What’s the average delivery time for a first baby? Again, every pregnancy and labor experience is different, so the duration of the three stages of labor and the total amount of time involved will vary from person to person.

However, there are some general timing ranges to keep in mind to help you prepare and know what to anticipate.

  • First stage of labor. For first timers, the early labor phase of the first stage can last anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, though for some, it can take up to 20 hours, so it’s quite a range. If you’ve given birth before, the process usually goes faster but can still last up to 14 hours. The second phase, active labor, can last from four to eight hours whether you’ve given birth before or not.

  • Second stage of labor. Once you start pushing, it's possible that you can meet your new baby in a matter of minutes! But the pushing and delivery phase of labor can also last a longer time, up to two or three hours.

  • Third stage of labor. This labor stage can be quick, lasting up to 30 minutes.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offers the following estimations:

  • First delivery: 12 to 18 hours on average

  • Second+ delivery: 8 to 10 hours on average

Remember, no matter how long it takes, in the end you’ll still meet your little one!


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Stages of Labor Chart and Timeline

Here’s a timeline and easy-to-read chart to help explain the three stages of labor. You can also download a copy to have the information readily available for when you need it.

Stages of Labor Chart and Timeline
StageFirst StageSecond StageThird Stage
What is it?Early labor, active laborPushing and deliveryDelivering the placenta
When does it start?Early labor: when contractions are every 5 to 15 minutes, lasting around 60 to 90 seconds.
Active labor: contractions become longer and closer together, and when you are 6 centimeters dilated.
Stronger, more intense contractions and when you’re 10 centimeters dilated.After your baby is delivered and your placenta has reached your vaginal opening.
How long (first delivery)Early labor: 6 to 12 hours (or 20+ hours)
Active labor: 4 to 8 hours
Up to 2 or 3 hoursUp to 30 minutes
How long (second+ delivery)Early labor: varies but is usually less than the first delivery 
Active labor: 4 to 8 hours
Up to 2 or 3 hoursUp to 30 minutes
What happens?Early labor: count contractions and manage pain.
Active labor: head to the hospital or birth center and wait for your cervix to dilate from 6 to 10 centimeters.
You’ll bear down and push during your contractions, as instructed by your healthcare provider.You’ll experience light contractions to detach the placenta, then push when instructed to deliver the placenta.
What you can doBreathing and relaxation exercises, walking, showering or bathing, listening to music, changing positions often, and sipping clear liquids but peeing often.Breathing, epidural block or other pain medication (if desired), concentrating on your labor partner or healthcare provider.Breathing and relaxation exercises.
How a labor partner may helpMassages, counting and helping with contractions, distracting with games or conversation, and applying cold and warm compresses.Support the birthing position, hold a hand, help with contractions, and offer encouraging, supportive words. Helping with any lingering contractions, massaging your partner’s shoulder, wiping their brow, and offering supportive words.

Stages of Labor


The three stages of labor are as follows:

  • First stage of labor: early labor and active labor
  • Second stage of labor: pushing and delivery
  • Third stage of labor: delivering the placenta.

The Bottom Line

As you get ready for delivery, it helps to know a little more about each of the three stages of labor. Though everyone is different, you can at least get a better idea of what each stage entails, what you can do during the stage, what to expect from your healthcare provider, and what your labor partner can do to help. We hope this article gives you some peace of mind, knowing your little one will eventually be on their way!

In the meantime, enjoy those final moments of pregnancy. As you prepare for your baby’s arrival, don’t forget to sign up for the Pampers Club app, where you can get discounts on what every parent needs: diapers and wipes.

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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