There is a lot of information out there about labor and birth. You could read a dozen books and learn something new from each one or you can check out five message boards and find out that the books are all wrong. You can rely on others to help you understand what is about to happen during labor, but it is also important to educate yourself and tune into the signs your body is giving you. We have boiled down the essential "five basic things parents should know about labor and birth":
Labor is the work that your body does to allow your baby to be born. Labor is made up of three stages called first stage, second stage/pushing and third stage. First stage labor is the process of contractions of the uterus which cause the cervix to dilate or open, allowing the baby to pass from the uterus to the birth canal. As labor progresses, contractions steadily get stronger and closer until second stage (pushing) begins. Second stage/pushing involves the mother working with her body to "bear down" and push the baby out of her body. Third stage is the time between the birth of the baby and the delivery of the placenta or afterbirth.
How to Time Contractions
Timing contractions is one tool that can help you understand the work your body is doing in labor. To time contractions, note the time a contraction starts, the time it ends and the time the next contraction begins (or use a contraction timing app to keep track). The time from the start of a contraction to the end is how long it lasts, also called duration. The time from the start of a contraction to the start of the next is how far apart they are, also called frequency.
The Difference Between Pre-Labor and Labor Contractions
If you are having contractions, that does not necessarily mean you are in labor. It is normal to have contractions in the weeks before labor. These are called Braxton-Hicks, pre-labor, false labor or warm-up contractions. These contractions may be uncomfortable but generally do not involve significant pain, and they do not cause the cervix to change very much. They differ from early labor contractions in the intensity (generally mild cramps or a tightening feeling), and where they are felt (often on one side). More importantly, they do not get stronger, longer or more intense over time and they do not result in the birth of the baby.
Signs of Early Labor
Early labor begins with regular contractions and continues until a woman reaches active labor: 6 cm dilation with contractions about 3-5 minutes apart. Women may experience additional symptoms during early labor such as increased vaginal discharge, blood tinged mucous or "bloody show," or diarrhea. If you have these signs along with increasingly frequent and strong contractions, you may be in early labor.
Don't Rush to Your Birth Place
Many women benefit from laboring at home during early labor. You are often more relaxed in your own environment, free to move, and free to eat and drink as desired. When you are more relaxed and comfortable, your labor will usually go quicker and be less painful. Many women know instinctively when it is time to go to their birth place, but many care providers advise women to go to their birth place when contractions are between 3-5 minutes apart and last 60 seconds or more.
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