What is my Body Doing During Childbirth?
Knowledge is power, so the saying goes. Many people believe that the more you know about something, the easier it is to cope and handle those particular situations. The increase in the use of doulas and midwives has increased the number of birthing mothers who are well aware of what their bodies do during labor. But there is still a good portion of pregnant mothers who are wondering, “What happens to my body during labor?”
That’s what this article is meant to explain in the hopes of alleviating the uncertainty and stress that comes from not knowing what precisely is going on.
Stages of Labor
It is not entirely clear why the body starts labor at a certain time, or what precise circumstances tell the body “it’s time”, but hormones start working to soften the ligaments between the bones in your pelvis and to soften the cervix. The baby may move lower or “drop” so that his/her head is snug against the cervix, though for some women, this may not happen until after labor begins.
While this isn’t considered an “official” stage of labor, most women experience it — although many women may not realize it is happening. The main purpose of this stage is to prepare the uterus, baby, and cervix for birth. Some women don’t feel a thing. Others feel a lot – often referred to as Braxton Hicks contractions or false labor.
Contractions are usually irregular and unpredictable in length and timing, and may begin several hours or days before the onset of labor. During this phase, the cervix moves from the posterior position it’s held throughout the pregnancy to a forward (anterior) position, it softens and thins (effacement), and may begin to dilate anywhere from one to four centimeters. It is during this phase that many mothers experience “passing the plug”, which is a mucus plug that has kept the cervix closed during the pregnancy.
Membranes may rupture during this phase as well.
First Stage – Active Labor: Latent Phase
During the latent phase, your contractions will start becoming stronger and more regular and progressively closer together until your cervix is four to five centimeters dilated.
At this point, the uterus is the largest and strongest muscle in your body, and it needs to work at contracting and relaxing. “Your uterus is actually made up of layers of muscles-some that go around the uterus and some that go up and down. The contractions of these muscles pull on the cervix and help to open it and put pressure on the baby, helping the baby move downward.” (University of Minnesota) As the baby’s head puts pressure on the cervix, it begins to thin and widen.
Because there is pressure on the rectum, you may experience loose bowel movements.
First Stage – Active Labor: Active Phase
The active phase starts once your cervix is dilated nine centimeters. The length of time this takes varies from woman to woman sometimes up to 10 hours or more. The purpose of this phase is to further widen the cervix in preparation for the pushing phase. The focus of the body is still on dilation. This is when the contractions occur approximately every two minutes and last from 30 to 60 seconds each.
First Stage – Active Labor: Transition
Transition is the last “preparation” stage. This is the body’s last effort to reach 10 centimeters dilation. It is relatively short compared to the other phases, but usually the most intense. The contractions are now one to two minutes apart and last from 60 to 90 seconds.
Second Stage – Birth: Latent Phase
Physically, your body is about to switch gears. This is a resting period where the body changes its focus and readies itself to actually push the baby out. This occurs once you’ve reach full dilation. There may be a period of 20 to 30 minutes where there are no contractions or fewer contractions — again, each woman is different. Sometimes this phase is misinterpreted to be a stalled labor and Pitocin may be used to stimulate contractions again, but this less intense part of labor really is part of the whole process and allows the mother to recoup her physical and emotional strength for the pushing stage.
Second Stage – Birth: Active Phase
The active phase occurs when the mother feels the urge to push although some may not feel the urge at all. The contractions are now working to push the baby out. It is during this time that some women may have a bowel movement or pass urine or gas, or even vomit because of all the pressure on the systems of the lower body.
Second Stage – Births: Crowning and Birth
This phase can last anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes and begins once the baby’s head becomes visible. The body’s work is almost done. Once the shoulders are gently eased out, the body has one last act to do.
Third Stage – Delivery of the Placenta
Some women may not even be aware of this phase. They’re so focused on the baby and enjoying the euphoria that comes with it that the delivery of the placenta is completely ignored. Once the baby is out, the uterus still continues to contract. For some women, the doctor may push down on the uterus to help dislodge and expel the placenta. A couple of pushes is usually all it takes. To aid in this process, you may be asked to nurse the baby to encourage contractions that would push the placenta out.
Darlene Oakley is a freelance writer for EmpowHER.com.
What Happens During Labor. Cass, Pam. Childbirth Solutions. Web. Apr 25, 2012.
Easing Labor Pain: the complete guide to a more comfortable and rewarding birth. Lieberman, Adrienne. Child Development Institute Parenting Today. Web. Apr 25, 2012.
Signs and Stages of labour. National Health Services. Web. Apr 25, 2012.