You may even avoid thinking about it at all! That sweet baby has got to come out somehow, and you may be less scared of the process if you understand the stages of labor.
"Oh, those Braxton Hicks contractions seem a little rhythmical all of a sudden. I'm not quite sure, though." That sounds like a bit of an anticlimax after all those months of waiting for your baby, but your labor may well start with that. By the time it is time for you to give birth, you will already be used to Braxton Hicks contractions and may think nothing of the increased frequency of your contractions. Early labor contractions don't, you see, hurt much. They feel much the same as the practice contractions you have been having for months. After a while, you may realize that your contractions are getting slightly heavier, longer, and are coming closer together. Could it be labor?
At this point, ask your partner to time the intervals and length of the contractions. Or call your mom or a friend with kids to see what she thinks. Once you realize you are in labor, you may wonder if this is "it" and what all those women were complaining about early labor contractions are only a little more painful than menstrual pains. Alternatively, your first sign of labor could be the breaking of your bag of waters. Some women also have really heavy labor right away, but this is relatively rare. By the time your contractions are four minutes apart and last over a minute, it is generally time to head to hospital or call your midwife. Discuss the exact plan with your healthcare provider, as there will be differences depending on the distance to have to go.
Your cervix already started opening up during early labor. Active labor is when things start getting heavier. You may be laughing at the relief you felt when you though labor wasn't that painful women in active labor may start vocalizing with contractions (or just "screaming" if you are less politically correct!), may make swaying movements with their body to ease the pain, doing breathing exercises, or begging for an epidural. If you are not having epidural anesthesia or some other form of medical pain relief, you may find walking, sitting on a birthing ball, having a bath or using a birth tub takes the edge off. Active labor goes on until your cervix is dilated to eight centimeters. For a first time mom, this can go on for many hours six to eight is about average, but it can also take longer. If you are giving birth in a hospital, there may be a time limit on how long you are allowed to labor naturally before labor augmentation is recommended (strongly), especially if your water has broken or has been ruptured artificially. After eight centimeters, you transition to a new stage.
From eight centimeters until you are fully dilated, and you are ready to push, you are in "transition". This is the hardest part of labor for most women, including those who have opted to have an epidural. Transition can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the individual woman and whether she has already had a baby before.
The pushing stage of labor is also called the second stage you are no longer working on dilating your cervix, and your body's new "job" is helping your baby descend down the birth canal, and to give birth to her. Depending on your healthcare provider, you may be able to push with the urge or let your body do the work, or you may have directed pushing during labor. Pushing can be over and done with really quickly, or it may take quite a while. The most common position is the lithotomy position, which is on your back and usually with your feet being higher (in stirrups, for example). Women having an unmedicated vaginal birth may prefer to squat, stand, sit on a birth ball, or give birth on all fours. This is something you should discuss with your healthcare provider beforehand.
The third stage
When your baby has been born, you may think labor and delivery is over. It isn't the placenta still needs to be delivered, and this is the third stage of labor. This normally happens within 30 minutes of the birth of your baby. You may feel light contractions when your placenta is ready to come out, or it may just slip out. In the meanwhile, you are hopefully cuddling your baby and trying to breastfeed for the first time.