Each and every pregnancy is different, including the labor and delivery that brings your new baby into the world. That being said, there is a specific chain of events that occurs with vaginal birth. Labor progresses in stages, from early to active labor, to finally giving birth to your baby and placenta. And once you deliver, there are a few things you should know about what is and isn’t a typical part of postpartum recovery.
Whether you’re preparing for the arrival of your first child or brushing up on the details before you welcome baby two, three, or four, we put this guide together so you know what to expect from your body as you begin your life as a parent of a newborn.
What to Expect From a Vaginal Delivery
First things first, with a vaginal delivery, your body will progress through the following stages of labor:
- What it is: Essentially, it’s the pre-game—this stage lasts up until around 6 centimeters dilation.
- How long it lasts: Anywhere from hours to days (yes, really, I’m sorry! Keep in touch with your own doctor through early labor, as it can be hard to gauge as a first-time mom especially).
During early labor, your contractions will probably be mild and spaced out as much as 20 minutes or as little as five minutes apart. As you move through early labor, the timing of your contractions will begin to become more predictable.
And once your contractions become stronger and closer together, your body is working on cervical dilation and effacement. Dilation is the opening of the cervix while effacement is the stretching and thinning of the cervix. Most women notice some tinted discharge during early labor, which is the result of your cervix opening (the cervix has a lot of blood vessels, hence the hint of blood).
And a quick note: there is no “set” time that your water has to break during labor—some women’s labor will start with their water breaking, but others can move through several labor stages before their water breaks.
- What it is: This is the stage where things really kick into high gear—it’s the stage when you dilate from 6 cm to 10, and generally, contractions really pick up in intensity.
- How long it lasts: For a first-time mom, active labor is generally 4-8 hours long, but that varies widely with every person.
Once you’re in active labor, your cervix will dilate from six to 10 centimeters. Most laboring patients become increasingly more uncomfortable during this phase. This is the stage that you’ll most likely want to request an epidural if that’s in your birth plan.
During active labor, your body is hard at work moving your baby into the birth canal. Your contractions are so frequent that it is hard to catch a break between them. This can be tough, but it is good news, because you are well on your way to meeting your baby!
- What it is: Technically, this is still part of active labor, but it’s a very intense time when your body readies itself for giving birth.
- How long it lasts: Anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes.
At the very end of active labor, you’ll experience what is called transition. During a vaginal birth, this shorter, intense portion of labor takes place when your cervix is fully dilating from 7 to 10. Many individuals notice a change in how they feel during transition—if you don’t have an epidural, you might experience increased discomfort and start to feel more anxious. Some also experience shaking from the hormones as their body prepares to push.
Laboring patients (even with an epidural) will also notice pressure, because their baby is moving down the vagina. You might experience an urge to push during transition, but wait for your doctor to give you the go ahead. Pushing before your baby is ready could result in unnecessary tearing or just plain exhaustion.
During the phase, your care provider might tell you that your baby is crowning. This is when the infant’s head is actually visible. You may be offered a mirror to see or might be able to reach down and touch the top of your baby’s head!
- What it is: Yup, you guessed it—this is the time when you will be pushing your baby out through the birth canal. The moment you’ve been waiting for is here!
- How long it lasts: Minutes to up to two hours (this depends on your facility’s policy for how long they will let you push, as well as your own baby’s health, of course).
Once your cervix has dilated to 10 centimeters, your doctor or midwife will begin to coach you through pushing. It’s time to deliver your baby!
Typically, women are instructed to tuck their chin and bear down, much like pushing during a bowel movement. And yes, sometimes you may expel an actual bowel movement when you push, but I assure you, not only is it perfectly normal, but your nurses will welcome it, because it’s a sign you’re pushing effectively.
As far as what position you should push in, it’s really up to you and your birthing team. There is evidence that delivery goes best when the delivering parent is allowed to do what feels natural, including waiting to push until they experience the urge and taking a break from pushing between contractions.
If you are a first-time mom, you could push for one or two hours during a vaginal birth. Parents who are delivering a second, third, or fourth baby often push for a shorter amount of time.
Delivering the Placenta
- What it is: Delivering your placenta is actually the last stage of labor, and yes, it’s still very important.
- How long it lasts: It can be as quick as 5 minutes, or as long as one hour, but usually it’s no more than 30 minutes.
Once your baby is in your arms, delivery isn’t quite over. The placenta has been keeping your baby supplied with nutrients and oxygen for the last 40ish weeks, but now that its job is over, it needs to exit your uterus.
The body often does this on its own by continuing contractions or restarting them five to 10 minutes after the baby is born. Your care provider might also use Pitocin (through your IV) to keep contractions going and encourage placenta delivery by massaging your abdomen. You may also have to push once or twice to expel the placenta, at your doctor’s request.
When Should You Head to the Hospital?
If you’re not sure when to head to the hospital, it is generally recommended that you wait until your contractions are lasting one minute or more and are consistently five minutes apart. If your membranes rupture, causing a leak or gush of amniotic fluid, this also means you should head to the hospital. You should also always seek medical attention if you begin bleeding or notice any decrease in your baby’s movement.
When in doubt, you can always call the hospital as well—most providers have an all-hours number for laboring parents to check in with questions or get the thumbs up to head to the labor and delivery ward.
What to Expect From Postpartum Recovery
It may be true that pregnancy and childbirth are natural processes, but that doesn’t make either easy or free from complications. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you will simply bounce back after your baby is born. After birth of any kind, your body needs lots of time to rest and heal.
A normal postpartum recovery takes months—in fact, your body doesn’t physically return to its pre-pregnancy state until at least 6 months, so keep that in mind next time you wonder if you’re not “bouncing back” fast enough.
On a practical level, your care provider will probably ask you to wait until at least 6 weeks to return to normal activity levels, including working out and having sex. During this time, your body is healing. If you’ve torn, you may be sore for some time and your healthcare provider will send you home with supplies for caring for and cleaning your perineal area while it heals.
Your body is also working very hard to keep up with the demands of caring for a newborn. It is exhausting to keep a new baby fed while also waking often throughout the night. Take care of yourself! Ask for help if you have friends or family nearby and try to plan ahead of time to keep plenty of easy, nutritious food in the house. (Or, just be OK with takeout for a while! #noshameinthepostpartumgame.)
Bleeding after vaginal birth is a normal part of postpartum recovery. In fact, many women bleed for a month or for as long as 36 days. Early on, your bleeding will be heavier and red or brownish-red. After a week, the flow won’t be as heavy but will still be consistent throughout the day.
When to Call Your Care Provider
Physically, bleeding and even mild clotting (much like a regular period) during postpartum recovery is typical. However, if you are bleeding excessively or experiencing large clots, you should give your doctor or midwife a call. You should also call your care provider with any change in physical symptoms—for instance if your pain seems to increase, or if you notice any foul-smelling discharge that may indicate an infection.
Mentally, it’s also important to pay attention to your mood during your postpartum recovery. Perinatal mood disorders, including depression and anxiety, are believed to be experienced by one out of seven new moms. If you are often sad, feeling hopeless, or struggling to find the motivation to keep up with basic tasks each day, these could be symptoms of depression. If your anxiety about caring for your child makes it difficult to sleep or interferes with everyday life, this could be a sign you’re experiencing postpartum anxiety. Call your care provider and schedule a check-up if you have any concerns about your mood. And don’t forget that there are uncommon symptoms of postpartum depression, like stomachaches or rage, that can occur as well. If you are struggling mentally, please seek help from a doctor who can point you to additional resources.
If you are having any thoughts of harming yourself or your child, call 911 and seek emergency medical attention. Perinatal mood disorders can feel very scary and it is easy to feel guilty if you are not happy after the birth of your child. However, mental health struggles after childbirth are never a mother’s fault. It is also important to know that mood disorders after given birth can be treated. Your doctor may recommend therapy, medication, or both.
Remember, a healthy baby starts with a healthy mom, so don’t forget that you need as much care—both physically and mentally—as your precious new baby.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is more: painful contractions or pushing?
Every labor and delivery is different and this includes the pain experienced. Many parents say that contractions are the most painful part of labor, especially since they last for so long, while others sail through contractions. It really is different for every single person. Spend some time during your pregnancy preparing for childbirth by researching pain management methods, including The Lamaze technique, The Bradley Method, pain medication, movement, and meditation.
Do I need to shave before giving birth?
You do not need to shave before giving birth. Believe it or not, the World Health Organization actually has an official stance on this practice. They do not recommend shaving the pubic area before childbirth, as doing so could increase the risk of infection. You might be shaved if you require a C-section, but again, it’s not necessary to do on your own before going to the hospital.
Will I need an episiotomy?
Episiotomies are not routine practice for vaginal births. They are only done when medically necessary. However, if you are concerned about an episiotomy, it’s always a good idea to talk to your care provider about their policies on episiotomies and when they perform them.
- Will it hurt to sit after I give birth?
Will it hurt to sit after I give birth?
It might hurt to sit after giving birth if you tore during childbirth. Don’t be afraid to tell your care provider if you are struggling to manage your pain well and you can also try some at-home strategies to make postpartum recovery more comfortable, such as supportive postpartum underwear or healing foam and witch hazel cooling pads (trust me, you’ll want those, especially if you have any stitches!)
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