Once labor begins, you'll need to prepare yourself mentally for the day. For some women, especially after a first child, this is a very easy task. For others, anxiety builds and builds. The best way to relieve that tension is to find out what to expect on that golden day.
During labor the cervix will dilate to about 4 cm (1.5 in) and contractions begin lasting 30 to 60 seconds about five minutes apart. This stage can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all day, so be prepared to go a little hungry. Eating during this time is not recommended.
The baby's head is waiting at the inner end of the cervix.
As labor progresses, cervical dilation will increase from 4 cm to about 8 cm (3 in) and the contractions will come quicker, about two minutes apart. Time to kick into mental gear and make use of that training you spent so much time to acquire and practice. Breathing properly will help oxygenate your tissues and minimize pain.
The baby's head, assuming a 'normal' (not breech) birth, moves forward toward the birth canal.
At the hospital, you may feel cold. That's probably not just because they keep the place well air conditioned and you are in a flimsy gown. Hormone changes can also produce this. It's normal. Don't worry about a sense of loss of control. You've got plenty of people to help you and you are the center of attention.
Your physician will check your status, along with that of your baby. They'll examine heart rate, and ensure that everything is positioned normally. Hospitals will often use some form of electronic FHR (fetal heart rate) monitoring for half an hour after you're admitted. They're looking for a baseline to measure against changes that will come soon.
If your membranes have ruptured, they may choose instead to monitor internally. If so, they'll insert a small electrode through the vagina. They may also insert a catheter in the uterus to measure contractions. Not to worry! It's safe for you and your baby.
Continuous monitoring is necessary only in those rare cases where there's a problem. Discuss with your physician in advance of labor about removing the devices as soon as possible to maximize your comfort.
Now your baby moves into position and your abdomen 'drops'. This is sometimes called 'lightening', since you feel lighter. The baby has moved away from the diaphragm, which makes breathing easier. Your doctor may report that you are '100% effaced', which means your cervix has dilated to about 10 cm (4 in). Contractions are longer and coming rapidly now, almost together.
Time to get ready to push.