When a baby becomes engaged, his head drops down into the mother's pelvis, a signal that the birth is on the way. The next steps are the stages of labour, which include the early labour, active labour and delivering the afterbirth. It can take several days or weeks after the baby's head becomes engaged until the mother begins to feel the early stages of labour.
During the lightening stage, the baby's head falls into the mother's pelvis. Many doctors and mothers also refer to this as the point when the baby has "dropped" and can signal a time of increased comfort for the mother. During this period before labour, the baby is no longer sitting near the mother's rib cage, which means she may feel less pressure when breathing and the ability to eat with more ease. Lightening generally occurs anywhere from two weeks or several hours before the early labour stage, although some babies' heads do not engage until the mother is in active labour. Lightening can also make mothers feel early contractions.
During this stage, the mother's cervix will begin to dilate, or open, slightly. She may also begin feeling mild to moderate contractions every five to 20 minutes. The contractions may happen infrequently at first but will begin to become closer together and last longer, eventually lasting as long as 60 seconds and occurring once every five minutes. A mucus filled, slightly bloody discharge may also present at this time, which is called a bloody show. During this first stage of labour, a mother may feel well enough to remain at home and continue some normal activities, such as taking a shower or even taking a short walk. The end of early labour and beginning of active labour usually begins when a woman is four centimetres dilated and the contractions are becoming stronger and more frequent. This first stage can last anywhere from several hours to several days.
Active labour begins when the cervix is dilated almost fully and the pain of contractions becomes more intense. Once the woman's cervix dilates completely to 10 centimetres and her contractions are occurring very often, it is time to begin pushing. The amount of time it takes for the baby to completely descend down the birth canal can take several minutes or several hours depending upon the woman's history, such as the number of children she has had in the past. After the baby has descended and is beginning to crown, which means its head it emerging from the birth canal, the woman is advised to stop pushing or push with less gusto so the baby can be successfully helped out into the world.
Delivering the Afterbirth
After the baby has emerged the mother will still feel several smaller contractions. It is during this time that the doctor or midwife will deliver the mother's placenta, which is now pulling away from the uterine wall. The doctor or midwife will examine the placenta and birth canal for signs of stress and to ensure that any bleeding is under control. This final stage usually lasts anywhere from five to 10 minutes, but generally no longer than 30 minutes, unless there are complications.