Pregnancy: Stages of labor – One Page Cheat Sheet

Learn the signs that baby is coming soon and the stages of labor.Stages of Labor

In many ways, your pregnancy is just like you: unique. Expect your labor and delivery to be just as personal and distinctive.

But that doesn’t mean everything that happens on that special day will be a surprise. No one can know exactly what will happen beforehand. But learn some of the basics now. It can help you be better prepared for your baby’s arrival.

Delivery nears

There are several signs that labor is weeks or days away, according to the American Pregnancy Association (APA). You may not notice every sign. But watch for:

  • Lightening. This happens when the baby drops or settles deeper in the pelvis. You’ll have less pressure on your diaphragm, so it’ll be easier to breathe. But there will be more pressure on your bladder, so you may have to use the bathroom more often.
  • Effacement. Usually in the final month or two, the cervix begins to thin and stretch. This allows for easier dilation during labor. While you won’t notice this, it’s something your health care provider can check during an exam.
  • Dilation. Also in the final couple of months, your health care provider may check to see how many centimeters your cervix has dilated. Ten centimeters is considered fully dilated. That means you’re ready to give birth.
  • Loss of the mucus plug. The mucus that has protected the cervical opening during pregnancy may come out days, hours or just minutes before labor begins. It may look stringy or appear as a clear, pink or blood-tinged discharge.
  • Membrane rupture. This is when your water breaks. Often this appears as a constant trickle. But some women experience a more sudden gush of fluid. You should contact your health care provider at this point, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)

Of course, there will come a time when you know delivery is imminent. Having frequent, regular contractions is the clearest sign.

Download the Handy One Page Cheat Sheet and stick it up on your Fridge or dresser so you can refer to it when the contractions start.

To understand these terms used in this post and in Contraction Timers apps, and to get recommendations for best Contraction Timer apps, click here. 

Experts divide childbirth into three stages.

Stage I

Longest stage of labor. It’s divided into three phases.

Phase 1: Early labor
  • Total Time: lasts about 8 to 12 hours.
  • Contractions Duration: 30 to 45 sec
  • Contractions Time: 5 to 30 min apart
  • Contractions Type:  Mild and irregular, but they get stronger and come closer together.
  • Physical Symptoms: A lower backache; menstrual cramps; Pressure in the pelvis; Expect your water to break during this stage.
  • What to do? Do NOT need to go to the hospital at this stage. Continue simple routines. Drink plenty of water, and eat small snacks. Keep track of your contractions & when your water breaks.

Phase 2: Active labor
  • Total Time: About three to five hours
  • Contractions Duration: 45 to 60 sec
  • Contractions Time: 3 to 5 min
  • Contractions Type:  Stronger and getting closer
  • What to do?  This is usually the time to go to the hospital.

Phase 3: The transition phase
  • Total Time: between 30 min and 2 hrs
  • Contractions Duration: 60 to 90 sec
  • Contractions Time: 30-sec to 2-min breaks
  • Contractions Type:  long, strong and intense
  • Physical Symptoms: Hot flashes, Chills, Nausea, Vomiting, Gas
  • What to do?  This is usually the time to go to the hospital. When you feel an urge to push, let your health care provider know. Cervix will be fully dilated and ready for birth.

 Stage II – Pushing and Delivery of your Baby

  • Total Time: between 20 min and 2 hrs
  • Contractions Duration: 45 to 90 sec
  • Contractions Time:  3-5 min breaks
  • Contractions Type:  long, strong and intense
  • What to do?  You’ll likely be told to push when you feel a strong urge to do so and to stop when the baby’s head is visible. Stage II ends with the delivery of your baby.

Stage III – Final & Shortest stage is Delivery of the Placenta.

  • Total Time: lasts between 5 to 30 minutes
  • Contractions Type:  small and unnoticeable
  • What to do?  After delivery, small contractions signal the placenta is ready to separate from the uterus. Once the placenta is delivered, you may shake and shiver. This is normal.

Finally, it’s time to relax and meet your new baby. Congratulations, Mom!


7 thoughts on “Pregnancy: Stages of labor – One Page Cheat Sheet

  1. Lilly says:

    You have “this is usually the time to go to the hospital” for both second stage and transition. They can’t both be right.


    • MommyAmmo says:

      Hi Lilly, that’s a great question. Thanks for bringing it to my notice. In the active phase, you could go to the hospital, but depending upon the dilation (if less than 7cm), the physicians may send you back home or let you stay and reach the 7cm mark if they think you are getting there soon.

      In stage 3, it is definitely time to go to the hospital (if you are planning a hospital birth) and since it is a rapidly progressing stage, it is better to go to the hospital as soon as your contractions start timing right.

      Hope this helps! 🙂


  2. Sandy says:

    Very good info for ladies. Needs to be updated a bit. Stage II can be 20 min to 3-4 hours as more women are having epidurals and don’t feel the urge to push. Often, women are allowed to labor down for 1-2 hours to let baby move down and less effort needs to be made


    • MommyAmmo says:

      Thanks for the comment… and you are right, Sandy! 🙂 I’ve written down the general scenario here where the mom chooses a natural, epidural-free birth. Based on various conditions like taking pitocin (to induce contractions if she doesn’t have any naturally), taking an epidural (to reduce pain), or taking an antibiotic through IV (for GBS treatment), etc., and also, just in general, the duration and timing of these phases may vary for each individual.


  3. Patty says:

    This is great info. I would love to download the one page cheat sheet for my doula clients but the link does not work anymore. Is there a way to get the cheat sheet. Thank you.


    • MommyAmmo says:


      Thanks so much for looking into this! I’m glad you think this cheat sheet would be useful for your doula clients, I think so too! I’ve fixed the link now, please let me know if you still cannot access it. Thanks again, and keep watching this blog for more awesome content! 🙂


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