Labor and Delivery: When It’s Time!

At Sierra Regional Medical Center, we know that there has already been much excitement and preparation surrounding the newest member of your family. Our Labor & Delivery Department is honored to part of this important milestone in your life.

Whether you are a first time mother or adding to your family, every birth can be different, and we help support and educate you every step of the way.

After nine months of incredible growth and changes both in the mother and the fetus, labor (contractions of the uterus) may finally start, signaling the pending birth of the baby. Many women fear the prospect of delivering their child. Part of this fear may be attributed to the unknown, especially in first pregnancies.

Instead, be proactive and consider discussing the following questions with your care provider before labor begins.

Question You Might Have About Labor

Labor is a series of continuous, progressive contractions of the uterus, which help the cervix open (dilate) and to thin (efface). This lets the fetus to move through the birth canal. Labor usually starts two weeks before or after the estimated date of delivery. However, no one knows exactly what triggers the onset of labor.

Each labor experience is different and the amount of time in each stage will vary. However, most women will deliver their baby within 10 hours after being admitted into the hospital, if the labor is not induced. Labor is generally shorter for subsequent pregnancies.

Labor is typically divided into 3 stages:

First stage. This is the onset of labor to complete dilation and is divided into the latent phase and the active phase.

  • Women can have very strong, painful contractions during the latent phase. The cervix dilates (opens approximately 3 or 4 centimeters) and effaces (thins out).
  • Some women may not recognize that they are in labor if their contractions are mild and irregular.
  • Called the latent phase, this is when contractions become more frequent (usually 5 to 20 minutes apart) and somewhat stronger. This is usually the longest and least intense phase of labor. The mother-to-be may be admitted to the hospital during this phase.
  • Pelvic exams are done to determine the dilatation of the cervix.

The active phase is signaled by the dilatation of the cervix from 6 to 10 centimeters. Contractions become regular, longer, more severe, and more frequent (usually 3 to 4 minutes apart). Most women feel the urge to push during this phase. In  most cases, the active phase is shorter than the latent phase.

Second stage. The second stage of labor starts when the cervix is completely opened and ends with the delivery of the baby.

  • The second stage is often referred to as the "pushing" stage.
  • During the second stage, the woman becomes actively involved by pushing the baby through the birth canal to the outside world.
  • When the baby's head is visible at the opening of the vagina, it is called "crowning."

The second stage is shorter than the first stage, and may take between 30 minutes to 3 hours for a woman's first pregnancy.

Third stage. After the baby is delivered, the new mother enters the third and final stage of labor--delivery of the placenta (the organ that has nourished the baby inside of the uterus).

This stage usually lasts just a few minutes up to a half-hour, and involves the passage of the placenta out of the uterus and through the vagina.

Just as prenatal development occurs in several stages, so does the delivery of a baby. Listed in the directory below, you will not only find information regarding the different stages of labor, but also the importance of providing appropriate postpartum (also called post-delivery) care for the new mother and the newborn, for which we have provided a brief overview. 

Signs of Labor

Labor begins very differently from woman to woman. Some women even report feeling like they have Flu-like symptoms. Some more common signs of labor may include:

  • Bloody show. A small amount of mucus, slightly mixed with blood, may be expelled from the vagina indicating a woman is in labor.
  • Contractions. Contractions (uterine muscle spasms) occurring at intervals of less than 10 minutes are usually a sign that labor has begun. Contractions may become more frequent and severe as labor progresses.
  • Rupture of amniotic sac (bag of waters). Labor sometimes begins with amniotic fluid gushing or leaking from the vagina. Women who experience a rupture of the amniotic sac should go to the hospital immediately and contact their healthcare provider. Most women go into labor within hours after the amniotic sac breaks. If labor still has not begun after 24 hours, a woman may be hospitalized for labor to be induced. This step is often taken to prevent infections and delivery complications.
  • If you are unsure if labor is beginning, call your obstetrician or contact the Labor and Delivery team at Sierra Vista.

Induction of Labor

In some cases, labor has to be "induced," which is a process of stimulating labor to begin. The reasons for induction vary. Labor induction is not done before 39 weeks of pregnancy unless there is a problem. Some common reasons for induction include the following:

  • The mother or fetus is at risk
  • The pregnancy has continued too far past the due date
  • The mother has preeclampsia, eclampsia, or chronic high blood pressure
  • Diagnosis of poor growth of the fetus
  • Some common techniques of induction include the following:
  • Inserting vaginal suppositories that contain prostaglandin to stimulate contractions
  • Giving an intravenous (IV) infusion of oxytocin (a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that stimulates contractions) or similar drug
  • Rupturing (artificially) the amniotic sac

Care at the Hospital During Labor:

When a woman arrives at the hospital in labor, the nursing staff may do a physical exam of the abdomen to determine the size and position of the fetus, and an exam of the cervix. The nursing staff may also check the following:

  • Blood pressure
  • Weight
  • Temperature
  • Frequency and intensity of contractions
  • Fetal heart rate
  • Urine and blood samples

IV fluids are sometimes given during labor. The IV line, a thin plastic tube inserted into a vein (usually in the woman's forearm), can also be used to give medicine. IV fluids are usually given once active labor has begun, and also are needed when a woman has epidural anesthesia.

The fetus, too, is carefully monitored during labor. A monitor may be placed over the mother's abdomen to keep track of the fetal heart rate.

Pain Management Options During Labor

A woman has many options for pain relief that occur during labor and the birth of her baby. Generally, mothers and their healthcare provider want to use the safest and most effective method of pain relief for both mother and baby. The choice will be determined by:

  • The mother’s preference for a natural or medicated birth plan
  • Mother’s health
  • The health of the fetus
  • The mother’s healthcare provider's recommendation 

There are 3 main types of pain management for labor and birth:

  • Non-medicated measures. These measures provide comfort and relieve stress, sometimes called natural childbirth. Many women learn techniques to help them feel more comfortable and in control during labor and birth. Some of these techniques include:
  • Relaxation. These techniques such as progressive relaxation, in which various muscle groups are relaxed in series, can help a woman detect tension and be better able to release that tension.
  • Touch. This may include massage or light stroking to relieve tension. A jetted bath or a shower during labor may also be effective ways to relieve pain or tension. Ask your healthcare provider before taking a tub bath in labor.
  • Heat or cold therapy. This is used to help relax tensed or painful areas, such as a warmed towel or a cold pack
  • Imagery. This technique of using the mind to form mental pictures that helps create relaxed feelings.
  • Meditation or focused thinking. Meditation focuses on an object or task, such as breathing helps direct the mind away from the discomforts.
  • Breathing. These techniques use different patterns and types of breathing to help direct the mind away from the discomforts.
  • Positioning and movement. Many women find changing positions and moving around during labor helps relieve discomfort and may even speed labor along. Rocking in a rocking chair, sitting in the "Tailor sit" position, sitting on a special "birthing ball," walking, and swaying may be helpful to relieve discomfort. Your healthcare provider can help you find comfortable positions that are also safe for you and your baby.
  • Analgesics. These are medicines to relieve pain such as meperidine. Small amounts are generally safe during labor and are commonly used with very few complications.  However, if given in large amounts or in repeated doses, analgesics can cause slowing of the breathing center in the brain in mothers and babies.

Types of Pain Medication During Birth:

  • Anesthesia. These are medicines that cause loss of sensation includes pudendal block, epidural anesthesia and analgesia, spinal anesthesia and analgesia, and general anesthesia.
  • Local block. Anesthesia injected in the perineal area--the area between the vagina and rectum-- numbs the area for repair of a tear or episiotomy after delivery
  • Pudendal block. A type of local anesthesia that is injected into the vaginal area (affecting the pudendal nerve) causing complete numbness in the vaginal area without affecting the contractions of the uterus. The woman can remain active in pushing the baby through the birth canal. It is used for vaginal deliveries.
  • Epidural anesthesia (also called an epidural block). This anesthesia involves infusing numbing medications through a thin catheter that has been inserted into the space that surrounds the spinal cord in the lower back, causing loss of sensation of the lower body. Infusions of medications may be increased or stopped as needed. This type of anesthesia is used during labor and for vaginal and cesarean deliveries. The most common complication of epidural anesthesia is low blood pressure in the mother. Because of this, most woman need to have an intravenous infusion of fluids before epidural anesthesia is given. A risk of epidural anesthesia is a postpartum headache. It may develop if the epidural needle enters the spinal canal, rather than staying in the space around the canal. The anesthesiologist will discuss the risks, benefits, and alternatives to the various methods of pain relief with the patient.
  • Epidural analgesia. This is sometimes called a "walking" epidural because the medication infused through the epidural is an analgesic, which relieves pain but does not numb the body and allows movement. Combinations of medications may be used in the epidural--part analgesic, part anesthetic. The most common complication of epidural analgesia is low blood pressure in the mother. This type of anesthesia is used during labor and for vaginal deliveries. A risk of epidural analgesia is a postpartum headache. It may develop if the epidural needle enters the spinal canal, rather than staying in the space around the canal. Epidural analgesia may be used for pain relief in labor and for vaginal deliveries.
  • Spinal anesthesia. This type of anesthesia involves injecting a single dose of the anesthetic agent directly into the spinal fluid. Spinal anesthesia acts very quickly and causes complete loss of sensation and loss of movement of the lower body. This type of anesthesia is often used for cesarean deliveries.
  • Spinal analgesia. This involves injecting an analgesic medication into the spinal fluid to provide pain relief without numbing. Spinal analgesia may be used in combination with epidural anesthesia or analgesia. This may be used during labor for pain relief or for postpartum pain relief.
  • General anesthesia. This type of pain relief involves giving an anesthetic agent that causes the woman to go to sleep. This type of anesthesia may be used in emergency cesarean deliveries.

Your Baby’s Delivery

Delivery is the moment when the fetus, followed by the placenta, exits the mother's body. In preparation for the delivery, a woman may be moved into a birthing room or delivery room. Or she may remain in the same room for both labor and delivery. Fathers or partners are encouraged to be actively involved in the process of childbirth by helping with relaxation methods and breathing exercises.

Positions for delivery may vary from squatting, sitting, to semi-sitting positions (between lying down and sitting up). With semi-sitting positions, gravity can help the mother push the baby through the birth canal. The type of position for delivery depends on the preference of both the mother and the Delivery team at Sierra Vista, as well as the health of the fetus.

During the delivery process, the medical personnel will continue to keep an eye on the mother's vital signs, like blood pressure and pulse, and the fetal heart rate. The healthcare provider will examine the cervical opening to determine the position of the fetus' head and will continue to support and guide the mother in her pushing efforts. Delivery can be done either vaginally or by cesarean section (C-section).

Vaginal Delivery

During a vaginal delivery, the healthcare provider will assist the baby’s head and chin out of the vagina when it becomes visible. Once the head is delivered, the healthcare provider applies gentle downward traction on the head to deliver the shoulder, followed by the rest of the body. The baby turns itself as the last movement of labor.

In some cases, the vaginal opening does not stretch enough to accommodate the fetus. It may be necessary to speed up delivery, for example, if the baby is in distress. In such cases, the team may perform an episiotomy. This is a cut through the vaginal wall and the perineum. This are is between the thighs, extending from the anus to the vaginal opening. An episiotomy is done to help deliver the fetus. Episiotomies are not needed for every delivery and are not routinely performed.

After the delivery of the baby, the mother is asked to continue to push during the next few uterine contractions to deliver the placenta. Once the placenta is delivered, any tear or episiotomy is repaired. The mother is usually given oxytocin. This is a drug given either by an injection into the muscles or intravenously that is used to contract the uterus. The uterus is then massaged to help it contract, and to help prevent excessive bleeding from happening.

Cesarean Section (C-section)

If a woman is unable to deliver the fetus vaginally, the fetus is delivered surgically, by performing a cesarean section. Cesarean sections are usually performed in an operating room or a designated delivery room. Some cesarean sections are planned and scheduled, while others may be performed as a result of complications that occur during labor.

Once the anesthesia has taken effect, a cut is made in the stomach, and an opening is made in the uterus. The amniotic sac is opened, and the baby is delivered through the opening. The woman may feel some pressure and/or a pulling sensation.

Following the delivery of the baby, the healthcare provider will stitch the uterine and the cut that was made in the stomach. After a cesarean or vaginal delivery, women will have some bleeding.

There are several conditions that may make having a baby by cesarean section more likely. These include:

  • Previous cesarean section
  • Fetal distress
  • Abnormal delivery presentation, like breech, shoulder, or face
  • A labor that fails to progress or does not progress normally
  • Placental complications. One example is placenta previa, in which the placenta blocks the cervix. This raises the risk that the placenta will become detached too soon from the uterus.
  • Twins or other multiples

If you have any questions about Labor or Delivery, contact the team at Sierra Vista, or schedule a visit with our Maternity team.