Labor and Birth Stage 1: Active Labor

Early labor

  • As your cervix continues to efface, waves of contractions cause it to open (dilate) slowly.
  • Your contractions will probably occur at more regular intervals, with your uterus tightening most at the “peak” of the contraction and then relaxing. Contractions will grow longer, stronger, and closer together, and usually become more painful.

Active labor

  • Once your cervix has dilated to four or more centimeters, and you are having strong, regular contractions, you are in active labor.
  • Your baby begins to move deeper into the pelvis; this movement is called “descent”. The distance your baby has traveled down into the pelvis is measured in stations, and each station equals one centimeter.
  • The baby also begins to turn or rotate, so that she can better fit through the shape of your pelvis.


The period during which your cervix dilates from seven centimeters to full dilation (around 10 centimeters) is called “transition". This phase ends the first stage of labor and usually lasts about 12 contractions, or about one hour. Although transition can be a very intense time for many women, it helps to remember that it usually doesn't last very long and that your contractions will not get any stronger. You may experience the following during transition:
  • Your contractions will be spaced much closer, may begin at a “peak”, or you may have double “peaks”.
  • You will feel more irritable.
  • You will not have an accurate sense of time.
  • You may feel that you “can't go on”.
  • You may feel nauseated, and even vomit.
  • Your legs may shake.
  • You may sweat and feel hot during a contraction, and then cold in between contractions.
  • Your amniotic sac may rupture (if it hasn't done so already).
  • You may have the urge to have a bowel movement or bear down; this occurs as the baby's head presses on your rectum.

Continue to "Labor Stage 2: The Birth" journey to parenthood

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Childbirth Connection is a national not-for-profit organization founded in 1918 as Maternity Center Association. Our mission is to improve the quality of maternity care through research, education, advocacy and policy. Childbirth Connection promotes safe, effective and satisfying evidence-based maternity care and is a voice for the needs and interests of childbearing families.
Most recent page update: 9/9/2010