When You're In Labor, This Is What Happens To Your Body

Childbirth is indeed miraculous, but it's also a very physical process that involves enormous (and often rapid) bodily changes. It's important to know what to expect when you go into labor so that you'll feel prepared and aren't unnecessarily anxious, embarrassed, or just plain weirded out by all the things your body does.

Labor is divided into three stages (via Mayo Clinic). Stage one is broken into two phases: early and active labor. During early labor, which can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, the body begins to prepare for Baby's arrival. The body continues to ready itself during active labor (which is what most people think of when they think of "going into labor"). This phase of stage one usually lasts four to eight hours and ends with a time known as transition. Many women find the transition to be the most intense part of the entire labor and delivery process, as contractions are at their peak.

Stage two of labor is the pushing stage, during which the baby is delivered. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Lastly, the third stage of labor is marked by the delivery of the placenta (afterbirth) and typically lasts just 5 to 30 minutes. Here's what you can expect as you move through each of these stages.

You lose your mucus plug

It's hard to imagine that anything as magical as the birth of a child would begin with something as unpleasant-sounding as the phrase "mucus plug," but it's true. According to Verywell Family, the mucus plug forms soon after fertilization and is necessary to maintain a pregnancy. It seals off the cervix (the opening to the womb) from the outside world, preventing bacteria and other pathogens from reaching the developing baby. Aided by the hormone progesterone, cervical cells secrete a thick, gelatinous mucus that contains antibodies and is constantly being "refreshed" throughout pregnancy. The mucus plug is roughly the size of a quarter and contains about 2 tablespoons of mucus.

As What to Expect explained, you will always lose your mucus plug before childbirth. But some women lose their mucus plug weeks before labor begins — a situation that usually isn't cause for concern. And because the mucus plug sometimes comes out in pieces over time, you may not even notice you're losing it. You may also see cervical mucus tinged pink or brown because blood vessels in the cervix have begun to rupture as the cervix prepares for delivery. This is known as "bloody show" and is a common sign that labor will soon begin.

Your water breaks

If you're expecting your own experience of labor and delivery to mirror what you've seen in movies, you're probably anticipating your water breaking as a huge gush of liquid running down your leg at some comically inopportune moment. The reality, however, usually isn't so dramatic. As the Mayo Clinic explained, your "water" is the amniotic sac — essentially a giant water balloon that surrounds and cushions the fetus during pregnancy.

The membranes of the amniotic sac rupture during labor, allowing the amniotic fluid inside to escape. The amniotic fluid is clear or pale yellow. While some women experience a true gush as their water breaks, others will only feel a slight sensation of wetness in their vagina or on their perineum. Or the fluid may leak out at either a constant or intermittent trickle.

For some women, the amniotic sac ruptures before labor begins. If this happens after the 37-week mark, it's known as premature rupture of membranes (PROM). If labor doesn't begin soon afterward on its own, you'll likely be induced. If your water breaks before week 37, it's known as preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM). If it's deemed unsafe to induce labor, doctors will usually prescribe antibiotics to ward off possible infections and steroids to speed up the baby's lung development (via What to Expect).

Your cervix changes

Think of your cervix as the gatekeeper to your uterus. In order for Baby to be born, the cervix needs to undergo two dramatic changes: effacement and dilation. Effacement is the softening, shortening, and "thinning out" of the cervix (via Mayo Clinic). During pregnancy, the cervix is 3.5 to 4 centimeters long, but as labor begins it slowly disappears. Effacement is expressed in percentages. A cervix that is 0% effaced is at least 2 centimeters long, while a cervix that is 100% effaced is "completely thinned out." The cervix also needs to dilate (open up) in order for the baby to pass from the womb into the birth canal. The cervix is considered fully dilated when it reaches 10 centimeters. Dilation begins slowly but picks up rapidly as labor progresses.

According to Medical News Today, the cervix dilates to 3 centimeters during early labor. This can happen before a woman even realizes she's in labor. During active labor, the cervix dilates further, reaching 7 centimeters. During transition, the cervix reaches its full dilation of 10 centimeters. Having trouble visualizing what those measurements would look like? The opening of a cervix that's 1 centimeter dilated is roughly the diameter of a Cheerio, a cervix at 4 centimeters is the diameter of an Oreo, and a cervix at 6 centimeters is the diameter of a soda can. At a full 10 centimeters, the opening of the cervix is the diameter of a bagel (via Medical News Today).

You're flooded with hormones

Transitioning from pregnancy to labor and delivery requires a number of big hormonal changes. According to the Society for Endocrinology's website, You and Your Hormones, oxytocin is one of the key players leading up to childbirth. Often referred to as the "love hormone," oxytocin levels rise sharply as labor begins. This hormone stimulates contractions of the uterus and encourages the effacement and dilation of the cervix. In fact, doctors use a synthetic form of oxytocin to induce labor if needed. Hormones known as prostaglandins also appear to play a role in preparing the cervix for delivery. And the hormone relaxin, as the name implies, helps soften and relax the ligaments in the pelvis, making it easier for Baby to pass through.

The process of childbirth also releases large amounts of certain other hormones. As Childbirth Connection explained, endorphins released in response to the pain and stress of labor can create an altered state of consciousness, making women feel alert, focused, and even euphoric. Your endorphin levels will likely drop if you opt for an epidural or another form of pain-relieving medication. Adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone, can also soar during labor for some women. Unlike the other hormones, however, it slows or halts the process. It can slow or completely stop contractions, increase fetal distress, and increases the likelihood that you'll need an emergency C-section.

You have contractions

When you think about delivering a baby, contractions are probably the first thing that come to mind. Uterine contractions ready the body to push the baby out of the womb and through the birth canal (via What to Expect). In early labor, contractions may feel like GI discomfort or heavy menstrual cramps. Each contraction lasts 30 to 45 seconds and the amount of time between contractions decreases as labor progresses. During active labor, contractions feel more intense, last 40 to 60 seconds, and are roughly five minutes apart. Contractions during transitional labor and pushing and delivery are 60 to 90 seconds each and may be as frequent as every two minutes, What to Expect explained.

But having contractions doesn't necessarily mean Baby is ready to be born. According to WebMD, Braxton Hicks contractions are the "false" labor pains that sometimes occur late in pregnancy. They're a sort of warmup for the main event, but they don't indicate that labor is imminent. Unlike true contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions aren't usually painful and may simply feel like a tightening in the lower abdomen. They don't become longer, more frequent, or more intense as time goes on and they don't follow a pattern. Unlike true contractions, changing positions or activities can often cause Braxton Hicks contractions to dissipate.

Yes, you'll probably poop

There's just no way to sugarcoat this: There's a very good chance you'll have an accidental bowel movement while in labor. While that may sound mortifying, rest assured that it's totally normal and something your doctor and nurses have dealt with hundreds of times before. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why a number two is in the cards for delivering mothers.

The muscles you use for pushing out a baby are the same ones you use when pooping. Hormones known as prostaglandins help initiate labor, but they also stimulate bowel movements. And since the colon sits directly behind the birth canal, as Baby comes out, his or her weight puts extra pressure on the colon and squeezes out anything that may be lurking there. Unfortunately, the only way to dodge this poopy bullet is to get lucky and have a good bowel movement right before labor begins (via Parents).

Back in the day, doctors would administer a pre-labor enema to clear the colon, but this practice is no longer considered necessary or helpful. What can be beneficial, however, is channeling the "I need to find a toilet right now!" feeling that labor produces and using a birthing stool. The stool allows the woman to bear down in a more comfortable (and familiar) seated position (via Today's Parent).

You may lose bladder control

It's quite possible you'll lose bladder control during or immediately following childbirth. As the Mayo Clinic noted, most women can still make it to the bathroom for a quick tinkle during labor. But if you've had an epidural and are numb from the waist down, you may not be able to control when you urinate or may be at too great a risk of falling if you tried to walk to the toilet. In that case, doctors insert a small tube called a Foley catheter into the urethra to drain urine from the bladder.

Unfortunately, issues with bladder control often remain for a little while after Baby is born. The bladder starts to lose muscle tone by the third month of pregnancy, and this loss of muscle tone continues into the early postpartum period. Temporary nerve problems can make it hard to tell when you need to pee. Swelling after delivery can also interfere with your ability to fully empty your bladder. Although postpartum bladder problems can happen to anyone, first-time mothers, women who pushed for a long period of time, and those who received an epidural or an episiotomy are at increased risk (via Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital).

You may feel nauseous or you may be ravenous

Remember good ol' morning sickness back in your first trimester? Well, for many moms-to-be, nausea and vomiting return before and during labor. According to BabyMed, "Nausea and even some vomiting late in pregnancy could be an indication of the onset of labor. This could occur several hours up to a few days before actual labor begins." Once you're in labor, feelings of nausea usually intensify, particularly during contractions. Unfortunately, epidurals may relieve pain, but they tend to increase nausea and vomiting. While nausea is unpleasant, excessive vomiting is more of a concern because it can quickly lead to dehydration.

At the other end of the spectrum, some women, especially those who have a lengthy labor, may be ravenously hungry. After all, you need calories for the energy it takes to bring your bundle of joy into the world. Until recently, however, most hospitals only allowed women to eat ice chips. Liquids and food were a no-go because if the woman ended up needing an emergency C-section, she'd need to be put under general anesthesia. Eating or drinking before going under increases the chances of aspirating (inhaling food or liquid into the lungs). However, some hospitals now give women who are at low risk of needing a C-section the green light to drink clear fluids and maybe even eat a light snack (via the UT Southwestern Medical School).

You could tear down there

It's truly amazing that you can birth something as large as a baby out of somewhere that's usually so small it snugly holds a tampon in place. But there are limits to how much the human body can stretch. Unfortunately, about 90% of women will experience tearing during their first delivery. Tearing usually occurs in the perineum (the area between the vagina and anus), although it can also occur inside the vagina or on the vulva.

Perineal tears are graded based on severity. First-degree tears are small and superficial and heal quickly with no or minimal intervention. Second-degree tears are deeper, involving the muscle of the perineum, and require stitches. Third-degree tears extend partially into the sphincter muscle surrounding the anus, while fourth-degree tears involve a complete tear of the anal sphincter and extend into the lining of the colon. Third- and fourth-degree tears affect about 3.5% of women and require surgery to repair (via Royal College of Obstetrics & Gynecology).

In an effort to get ahead of the problem, doctors used to routinely perform episiotomies, an intentional incision in the perineum that was believed would heal faster and prevent more extreme tearing. Now, however, episiotomies are usually only performed to help speed up deliveries in certain high-risk situations, such as when the baby's shoulder is trapped behind the mother's pelvic bone or when the baby's heart rate becomes abnormal (via Mayo Clinic).

You may hyperventilate

Yoga and meditation aren't the only times you should be mindful of your breathing. Breathwork can be extremely helpful during labor and delivery as well. According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), "Patterned breathing refers to the act of breathing at any number of possible rates and depths. ... The goal is to find breathing patterns that have a calming and relaxing effect."

Patterned breathing can help laboring women work through the pain of contractions and can keep them in a calmer and more relaxed state. The APA recommends panting when you're having a contraction, though some experts feel differently. They argue that panting decreases oxygen supply and may lead to hyperventilating (via Ask Dr. Sears). Some women may breathe too quickly and heavily during painful contractions, and this hyperventilating can cause lightheadedness and tingling in the extremities. Hyperventilating can also be bad for Baby. A 2012 paper published in Reproductive Sciences noted that hyperventilating during the second stage of labor reduces the pressure in the umbilical vein, which in turn can reduce the amount of oxygen that reaches the baby's brain.

If you begin to hyperventilate, take slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth (via Ask Dr. Sears).

You may shake uncontrollably

One strange side effect of giving birth that often goes unmentioned is the possibility of shaking, shivering, and chattering teeth. But it's surprisingly common. In fact, an older study published in Anesthesiology found that 18% of women exhibited shivering before delivery and 16% trembled post-delivery. The study authors noted that this behavior wasn't always the result of trying to regulate body temperature, although sometimes low body temperature (hypothermia) or high body temperature (hyperthermia) accompanied the shaking. Women reporting the highest pain scores were most likely to experience shivering.

So what's behind all the shaking? According to Parents, massive hormonal changes are often to blame. Oxytocin, whether naturally produced by your body or given in the form of the medication Pitocin, encourages the uterus to contract but can also cause muscle contractions in your arms, legs, and back, leading to shaking. The stress of giving birth can trigger fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine, which can also cause shaking and trembling. These hormonal swings, combined with other drastic fluctuations in body chemistry during and immediately following labor, can essentially place the body in a state of shock.

Your eyes could look bloodshot

If you're hoping to take a bunch of Instagram-worthy pics of you gazing adoringly at your newborn, get ready to make heavy use of filters. You may be starry-eyed with love for your little bundle of joy, but your eyes are likely to look bloodshot.

As Baby Center explained, "Sometimes the intense pushing during the second stage of labor can burst the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in your eyes, causing blood to build up on the white part of your eye." This can happen to anyone, but it's more common if you have high blood pressure or take blood thinners. Your eyes will clear up on their own as the blood vessels heal, but the process will take a week or two.

If you'd like to help your peepers recover a bit faster, you can apply cold compresses to your eyes several times a day for 10 minutes at a time (via What to Expect). Sunglasses can help hide your bloodshot eyes if you're feeling self-conscious in public. Or simply embrace it! After all, it's a visible reminder of all the hard work you put in bringing Baby into the world.

You may have contractions after the baby is born

Even though bringing Baby into the world is the "main event" of childbirth that everyone focusses on, labor doesn't end there. The placenta is delivered during the third and final stage of labor, which usually lasts just five to 30 minutes (via Verywell Family). The placenta (fittingly also referred to as the afterbirth) is a disk-shaped organ that serves as the middleman between mother and baby during pregnancy. It provides the baby with the nutrients, hydration, and oxygen it needs, while simultaneously removing waste products like carbon dioxide.

After your baby is born, you'll continue to experience contractions as your body works to separate the placenta from the wall of the uterus and move it out through the birth canal. Fortunately for exhausted mammas, these contractions are usually mild and painless, and you may not even notice them. Each one lasts about a minute. The doctor may help the process along by applying pressure to the uterus or administering the drug Pitocin. if you had a C-section, the placenta will be removed before you're stitched up (via What to Expect).

But the contractions don't end there. According to Verywell Family, you'll likely feel contractions for several weeks after giving birth. These contractions, known as after-pains, help your uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size — a process known as involution. The amount of discomfort these contractions cause varies from person to person, and after-pains may be more intense with each subsequent pregnancy.

You could lose a lot of blood

There's no way around it: Giving birth is a bloody business. In addition to any blood lost because of tearing, the separation of the placenta from the uterine wall leaves a bed of ruptured blood vessels that will bleed freely until the contracting uterus clamps them shut. It's normal for a woman to lose up to half a liter (1 pint) of blood after a vaginal delivery or a liter (1 quart) after a C-section (via the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia).

Postpartum hemorrhage occurs when a woman loses more than a quart of blood after giving birth or has symptoms associated with excessive bleeding, such as low blood pressure, a rapid pulse, and light-headedness. Postpartum hemorrhage usually occurs because the uterus doesn't contract tightly enough. This may be due to an overstretched uterus, prolonged or rapid labor, or the use of muscle relaxants during labor and delivery. Hemorrhaging can also happen if the woman has a bleeding disorder or if part of the placenta remains inside the uterus. Excessive bleeding after giving birth can be extremely dangerous, even life-threatening, so doctors closely monitor the amount of blood lost (via Merck Manual).