The Stages of Labor: How You’ll Feel and What to Do

So much about pregnancy is measured in numbers. Fetal development is tracked in weeks, contractions by how many minutes apart, and dilation in centimeters. Numbers help identify exactly where you are in the process. Once you know where you are, you’ll know what to do. This is especially important during the stages of labor. However when it comes to finding what stage of labor you’re in, feelings are actually a much more helpful measurement than any number.

So, for now, let’s skip the numbers and focus on how you’ll feel during each of the three stages of labor and what you can do.

STAGE 1: Contractions

This first stage can be broken down into three parts: early, active and transition.


  • What you’ll feel: Mild and irregular contractions similar to intense menstrual cramping in your lower abdomen and potentially your back. Some are able to sleep through these contractions, while others will feel them more acutely.
  • What to do: Alternating between periods of light activity and rest can help labor progress. Walking is a good activity of choice. Take regular breaks to rest, eat and drink so that you have energy for delivery.


  • What you’ll feel: More consistent and intense contractions that radiate up through your entire abdomen, around your back and even down your legs. Most women find they need to stop and breathe through these.
  • What to do: If these contractions don’t slow down or go away, you can start heading to the hospital.


  • What you’ll feel: Contractions will become the most intense in terms of pain and pressure. Most women will feel the urge to push.
  • What to do: Wait it out until the cervix is fully dilated. Fortunately, this is the shortest part of stage one.


STAGE 2: Pushing

  • What you’ll feel: You can expect this stage to be very intense, both emotionally and physically. However, many women find this stage brings relief as they are finally able to do something about the pain and pressure by pushing. You may get nauseous, and your body may shake from the emotional and physical toll.
  • What to do: Push!

STAGE 3: Placenta

  • What you’ll feel: In this final stage the placenta is delivered. Most women are so distracted by the new baby in their arms that they feel very little cramping and pain with this final stage.
  • What to do: This is the most passive stage of delivery. Enjoy your new little one, and your delivery team will help you with the rest.

Every delivery is different, but these general stages won’t change. If you have questions or concerns about any part of the stages of labor, contact your physician or midwife.

St. Luke’s Birthing Center is located in Duluth, MN, with St. Luke’s clinics in the surrounding region, including Superior, WI. To schedule a tour of St. Luke’s Birthing Center, call 218.249.5605.


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