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What to expect during labor

You’ve spent months following doctors’ orders, trekking to your prenatal appointments and abiding by the “rules” for a healthy pregnancy. By this point, you’re probably counting down the days until your baby’s grand entrance. But, wait…what happens once the big day arrives?

The onset of labor 

As your body prepares for labor, it will start sending signals that you’re about to give birth. You’re probably very much in tune with your body by now, which will help you know when it’s time to contact your OB, midwife or healthcare provider.

Here are some signs of labor to look for:

  • Baby “dropping,” which occurs when your baby moves down in your uterus to prepare for birth. Dropping can happen a few weeks to a few hours before labor begins.
  • Your water breaking, which occurs when your amniotic sac ruptures. (This will likely not be as dramatic as it’s portrayed in the movies!)
  • “Bloody show,” which is a vaginal discharge that’s mixed with a small amount of blood.
  • Contractions, which will start coming in regular intervals between 30 to 5 minutes apart.

When you experience these signs, it’s time to call your healthcare provider. He or she will tell you whether you should grab your hospital bag and head to the hospital.

Arriving at the hospital

Depending on what your doctor or midwife advises, you’ll likely check in right at labor and delivery at the hospital instead of heading to the emergency department.

In the L&D unit, you’ll be evaluated in a triage room. Here, a nurse will measure your contractions and listen to your baby’s heartbeat. Depending on whether your water has broken yet (sometimes it may have to be “broken” manually), and if it’s determined labor has officially begun, you’ll be taken to your delivery room.

Sometimes, false alarms happen. So, if it’s determined you aren’t far enough along in your labor, you may be sent home at this point.

Your delivery room: Home sweet home for the next few days

Time to get comfy — you’re going to be here for a while! Once you’re moved to your delivery room, you’ll change into your hospital gown, unpack your bag and get settled while waiting for your doctor or midwife to come see you.

You’ll also get to meet your labor and delivery nurse (or nurses!) who will help care for you and work alongside your doctor or midwife as needed during your labor. An important part of your birth team, your nurse will check in from time to time to see how your labor is progressing, monitor your contractions and check both you and your baby’s heartbeats. At this point, your doctor or midwife will also check to see how far dilated you are.

Depending on your progression, you may have some time until actual delivery begins. You might want to walk around, take a shower or try to relax in your room.

Now it’s time to dust off that birthing plan. Based on your wishes and what you’ve discussed with your OB or midwife, you’ll be given the option for an epidural or can choose to stay medication-free. If you’re going with an epidural, an anesthesiologist will come in to talk to you before it’s administered. You’ll be hooked up to an IV drip that contains both pain medication and fluids, so you’ll need to stay in bed from this point on.

Stages of labor

What happens next will be determined by the type of delivery you’ll have: vaginal delivery, scheduled cesarean section (C-section), VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section) or emergency C-section.

Vaginal birth/natural labor - Your OB or midwife will get you started with practice breathing. From here, it may be a waiting game. You’ll need to get to 10 centimeters dilated before it’s go time. Trust your doctor or midwife — they’ll tell you when and how hard to push and help guide your baby’s head as they make their way out.

Cesarean birth – A C-section can be scheduled in advance, or it can become an emergency procedure — both for medical reasons. Either way, the procedure will typically take between 30 and 60 minutes. If your C-section was planned, your anesthesiologist will stop in and talk to you before administering your pain medications. You may also need to have your pubic area shaved so your doctor can make the incision.

Unless the procedure is a medical emergency, you’ll be awake. But don’t worry — a surgical curtain will block your view of what’s happening. You may feel some discomfort and pressure as the doctor makes the incision and guides baby out, but you should not feel any pain.


Congrats, mom — your baby is here! You’re probably feeling exhausted, uncomfortable and sore, but all will be trumped by the fact that you brought a tiny human into the world, which is pretty incredible.

During your recovery from birth, you and your little one will be hunkered down in the hospital for a few days — two for a natural birth, up to four days for a C-section. The rest of your time here will be spent bonding with your baby and resting. Your doctor or midwife will visit you every day while you’re in the hospital, and a pediatrician will also stop in to check on your baby each day. If you’ve chosen to breastfeed, a lactation consultant will also visit with you to offer breastfeeding support and resources.

During this time, it’s important to take care of yourself. Get sleep when you can, eat healthy, stay hydrated, move around, shower and, of course, enjoy bonding with your newborn.

Next steps:

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