In a vaginal birth, the baby will come out through the birth canal. Most women give birth at around 38 to 41 weeks of pregnancy. However, there is no way to know exactly when labor will happen.
Labor is a natural process that:
Most births happen safely. Some problems that may happen include:
Things that may increase the risk of problems include:
Prenatal care will track the health of mother and baby throughout the pregnancy. It can help to identify possible problems. A support person should be chosen to help during labor and delivery. A birth plan may be made to help communicate to birth team. A childbirth class may also be helpful.
Talk to your doctor about:
Be aware of the signs of labor, which include:
False labor is irregular contractions of the uterus. It is often called Braxton Hicks contractions. They are normal but can be painful. They are usually also felt in the stomach and not the back. Timing the contractions is a good way to tell the difference between true and false labor.
Note how long it is from the start of one contraction to the start of the next. Keep a record for an hour. The length of time between true labor contractions will start to decrease. The contractions will also become longer and stronger and may be felt in your back.
At first the uterus will begin to contract and move the baby down the birth canal. The cervix will slowly enlarge to a diameter of about 10 centimeters. This will allow the baby to pass through and be delivered. This process usually takes a while. Labor can be quicker if this is not the first child.
There are many medical options for pain control. All treatments to relieve pain during labor have risks and benefits. Make sure you discuss these options with your doctor:
The cervix will be checked at regular periods. A nurse will prepare you when the cervix is fully opened and the baby is moving down the birth canal. Your legs may be draped with cloths. Some doctors will clean the area around the vagina with an antiseptic solution. The doctor will tell you to push every time there is a contraction.
Legs may be placed into holders. The nurses and your support people may hold your legs in a comfortable position. This will help you to push. Your doctor may encourage you to find a position that is right for you.
You may be asked to slow pushing when the baby's head is seen at the opening to the vagina. The doctor may massage the perineum to gently stretch it to assist birth.
Once your baby's head is out, you will be asked to stop pushing. The doctor will check to make sure that the umbilical cord is not around the baby's neck. Then, you will be able to push the baby out fully. If the baby appears healthy and is breathing well, the baby may be placed on your stomach or chest. The umbilical cord will be clamped and cut. Within the next 20 minutes, the placenta will be delivered.
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Sometimes the baby's head does not move as expected through the birth canal. If this happens, your doctor may use forceps or vacuum to move the baby.
Right after birth, your baby may be placed on your belly or chest. This skin-to-skin contact may lead to improved breastfeeding success. Some may begin to feed immediately, others will wait.
You may need stitches if your perineum is cut or torn. The vaginal area, perineum, and rectum will be cleansed. The belly may be massaged to help the uterus clamp down and stop bleeding. Other steps may include:
The average time for a first baby is 12 hours. This can vary greatly, though.
Labor causes severe pain during contractions. There may be brief periods of relief after each contraction. Talk to your doctor about your options for managing pain.
The usual length of stay for a vaginal delivery is 1 to 3 days. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if problems arise.
Having a baby will change you physically and emotionally.
Physically, you might have the following:
Emotionally, you may be feeling:
After you leave the hospital, contact your doctor if any of the following occur:
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
American Pregnancy Association
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Women's Health Matters
Depression during and after pregnancy. Office on Women's Health website. Available at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/depression-pregnancy.html. Updated July 12, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2020.
Epidural anesthesia. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://americanpregnancy.org/labornbirth/epidural.html. Updated March 24, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2020.
Spinal block. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://americanpregnancy.org/labor-and-birth/spinal-block/. Updated August 8, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2020.
4/29/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114734/Comfort-measures-nonpharmacologic-during-labor: Hjelmstedt A, Shenoy ST, Stener-Victorin E, Lekander M, Bhat M, Balakumaran L, Waldenström U. Acupressure to reduce labor pain: a randomized controlled trial. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2010;89(11):1453-1459.
12/9/2013 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114734/Comfort-measures-nonpharmacologic-during-labor: Hodnett ED, Gates S, et al. Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;7:CD003766.
Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mary-Beth Seymour, RN