While we wish there was one answer for all, every woman’s labor and delivery experiences are different. But how long is a typical labor? What are the stages of labor and delivery?
Labor is a series of continuous, progressive contractions of the uterus which help the cervix open (dilate) and to thin (efface). This lets the fetus move through the birth canal. Labor usually starts 2 weeks before or after the estimated date of delivery.
A typical, vaginal delivery is categorized into 3 stages of labor:
During the first stage, a woman will experience the onset of labor with the start of contractions. This stage is broken into two phases, the latent and the active phase.
- A woman is in the latent phase when contractions are anywhere between five to 20 minutes apart. During this phase, she may notice that the contractions begin to become stronger. This is usually the longest and least intense phase of labor. This phase of labor is the most variable in terms of duration. It can even be normal for periods of contractions to come and go for several days or weeks prior to active labor. Women should call their doctors when there are signs that labor is getting more active, such as when the contractions are five minutes apart, last about a minute, and continues for one to two hours. These contractions should be painful (i.e. it is difficult to talk during them!).
- The second part of the first stage of labor – the active phase – begins when the contractions become regular, longer, more severe, and more frequent, usually three to four minutes apart. For a first time Mom the active phase usually lasts about five hours and about four hours for women who have given birth before. However, it can still be within normal limits for this phase to last up to around 16 hours.
The second stage is often referred to as the “pushing” stage. During this stage, the woman begins to actively push the baby down through the birth canal to the outside world. This stage is typically shorter than the first and may take anywhere between 30 minutes to three hours for a woman’s first pregnancy. During subsequent deliveries, this stage of labor may take less time.
After the baby is delivered, the mother enters the third and last of the stages of labor — the delivery of the placenta (the organ that has nourished the baby inside of the uterus). This stage usually lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a half-hour and involves the mother pushing the placenta out of the uterus and through the vagina.
Sarah Elizabeth Little, MD, MPH, is a Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.