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Stages of Labor

For forty weeks, you wait for a single day: the day you have your baby. You may well look back at it as one of the greatest days of your life, but you are probably not looking forward to it with such enthusiasm. You may be scared. You may be impatient. You may be nervous. You are guaranteed to be in some pain and discomfort on the day in question. But it won't last nearly as long as your memories or your love for your baby. And it's easier to get through when you know what to expect.

There are four stages of labor, and though their character varies just as much as individual women do, there are some things you can anticipate.

You could know you are in labor when:

  • your baby drops
  • your water breaks;
  • a small, clot like plug (bloody show) dislodges itself;
  • steady contractions begin and take on a pattern;
  • you suffer from cramps or diarrhea; and/or,
  • you are flooded with energy, relief, nerves, excitement, or all four at once.

Bloody show can occur as early as a couple of weeks before labor, or once you're already in it. Your water may break now, but it may break much later. You know that you are officially in early labor because your contractions will become steady and persistent and your cervix will dilate from zero to four centimeters. Like the Braxton Hicks contractions you have probably been experiencing for some time, early labor contractions are mild and begin in the back, moving forward in a wave like motion. You can differentiate them from the Braxton Hicks contractions by moving. Changing your position or getting up and walking strengthens a labor contraction, while it has no effect on a Braxton Hicks contraction. These contractions will be thirty to sixty seconds long and between five and twenty minutes apart.

You may be in early labor anywhere between two and 20 hours so sit back and stay as comfortable as possible at home with a stop watch in hand. Time your contractions from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next. Once your contractions have been five minutes apart for about an hour if you are a first time mom, or ten minutes apart for about an hour if you have had a baby before, call your doctor or caregiver. They will probably tell you that unless your water has broken, it is too early to go to the hospital or birthing center, and they will let you know when you should plan to leave for the hospital. When making that decision, don't forget about traffic. Sleep if you can. Eat a small, light snack. Call your coach and add any last minute items to your hospital bag. If you find yourself getting worked up and stressed out, practice your relaxation techniques.

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