What Is It Like to Give Birth?

Nurse comforting mother and newborn in hospital

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

If you're nearing your due date (or even just considering getting pregnant), along with the normal excitement and trepidation, one big question may be looming in your mind. Namely, what is it really like to give birth?

The short answer is that the experience of childbirth is an emotional and physical journey like no other. Each person's labor and delivery experience is unique, however, by and large, parents share a profound love for the baby at the end of that journey.

This article provides an overview of the birthing process from the first signs of labor to the moment you're holding your newborn in your arms. It also discusses the typical emotional and physical experiences associated with giving birth, the stages of labor, at-home births, pregnancy complications, and pain management.

Overview

People have been giving birth since, well, the beginning of humanity. But, still, the experience of childbirth may seem a bit mysterious or intangible, especially to those who are about to embark on it. Yes, the basics of the process, like contractions, water breaking, and pushing out the baby, are generally clear enough, but the nuts and bolts of what it will actually be like (and the accompanying emotions) may still feel unknown, and may be a bit scary.

The truth is that just like that there are stages of labor and 10 centimeters (cm) of dilation to get through, there are also many layers of emotions that new parents will experience during childbirth as well. It's normal to wonder how each of these steps might feel physically and mentally in real-time.

It's common to have big and small worries and questions about potential pain, discomfort, and birthing techniques—as well as the emotional ramifications that come with bringing a new life into the world.

Pregnant people often worry about coping with the physical pain of childbirth, which will differ for every person but is typically very intense. Also, you may wonder what happens (for mind and body) if you don't go into labor or other complications arise.

There is also the mental toll of making decisions about who to have in the delivery room, pain management, induction, and any other issues that arise if labor doesn't progress as expected—and adjusting to the reality of the situation if the experience doesn't match up with your birth plan.

Emotional and Physical Journey

If pregnancy is a physical and emotional marathon, childbirth is an intense rollercoaster of sensations for the mind and body, complete with thrilling highs and often some lows like discomfort.

But while there is a general template for how childbirth goes, each one follows its own rhythm, with some going comparatively smoothly and others becoming more complex. Many people will have relatively few complications and deliver near their due dates, some people will have planned C-sections or inductions, while others will go into labor prematurely or not go into labor on their own even at 42 weeks.

What is common is that labor and delivery, just like pregnancy, is often a process of hurrying up and waiting, with periods of tranquility or inactivity interspersed with tension, excitement, and/or intensity. It's a surge of feelings in mind and body that you're sure never to forget.

Occasionally, adverse outcomes like an emergency C-section, hemorrhaging, or even stillbirth do occur. Most of the time, however, even despite any hiccups that may (and often do) happen, labor will go pretty well. What's constant is the transformation of one into two. And after that last push, when the baby is placed on your chest, any struggle or trauma may quickly be overtaken with joy, wonder, and love.

The Last Days of Pregnancy

Each week, after you enter the third trimester, gets you closer to your delivery date. Still, your baby could come early or late, so it's not easy to pinpoint exactly when your last few days of pregnancy will be. However, for many people, those last few days before childbirth will take place in the week before or after their due date. You're likely to feel very ready for the baby to arrive, but may also be relishing the pre-childbirth excitement.

Some people are a bit fearful of what the labor and delivery will bring, namely how they'll cope with the pain and/or worries over any potential adverse outcomes. Seek help from your doctor, family, friends, and/or counselor if you need support or have concerns.

Others will be busy getting everything ready for the baby's arrival. Swollen feet, an aching back, sciatica, acid reflux, trouble sleeping, lightning crotch, pelvic pain, or other challenging pregnancy symptoms make some people yearn for their contractions, while others might feel content in their ever-expanding pregnant body and hope for their baby to stay put a bit longer.

For those with planned C-section deliveries or inductions, you'll know exactly when your last days of pregnancy are (unless, of course, you go into labor beforehand), and can enjoy a more certain end date to your pregnancy.

Whatever your situation, it can help to treat your last month of pregnancy as your "last days" in order to get the things done that you want to do, such as setting up the nursery, stocking up on diapers, and enjoying the calm before the frenzy of taking care of a newborn begins. Be sure to make time to relax and pamper yourself.

Waiting

The waiting for your baby's arrival, especially for those that go past their due date, can be challenging—emotionally and physically. As noted above, there are lots of ways (and places, from head to toe) that your body can feel uncomfortable as your baby reaches full-term, particularly once the baby's head has dropped into the pelvis. So, with each passing day, the waiting can feel like a physical challenge as much as a mental one.

While the waiting may feel exciting, it can also be draining, particularly if you are experiencing any complications (such as placental issues, gestational diabetes, or high blood pressure), worries about the delivery, and/or false starts. Know that it's very common to mistake false contractions (also called Braxton-Hicks) for the real thing, and it can be deflating to come home from the hospital if you thought the real thing was a go.

Still, for many, the anticipation of childbirth is also a wondrous time. You may find yourself in awe of the ways your body has changed over the past nine months—and all the ways your life will soon be transformed once your baby arrives.

Some moms use this time to take the last photos of their pregnant body. Others make meals to freeze to have at-the-ready and some might want to just get in some extra rest and finish packing up the hospital bag. Games, movies, walks around the block, and swimming are other ways to pass the time. Sometimes, impending moms seek to jumpstart labor with a variety of methods such as walking, massage, acupuncture, sex, reflexology, exercise, acupressure, or nipple stimulation.

First Signs of Labor

You'll know labor has begun once contractions start in earnest. Real contractions get increasingly stronger, longer, and closer together. Your water may or may not break at this point—if it does, you'll have clear fluid leaking from the vagina. Note that sometimes this happens before contractions begin and sometimes well into labor.

Now's the time to alert your support person (such as your partner, spouse, friend, doula, and/or relative) that your labor has begun and start timing your contractions.

Early contractions are more uncomfortable than painful and typically feel like a tightening around the abdomen, which will soon be enough to stop you in your tracks but shouldn't be too intense yet. These contractions may start out 10 or more minutes apart and usually will progress to around five minutes apart, one minute in length, for around an hour before it's time to go to the hospital.

The tightening sensation will progressively amplify (and may feel like constriction, crushing, cramping, and pressure all at once) as your labor progresses. Your doctor will undoubtedly have instructed you on when to notify them and head to the hospital. However, even if you haven't reached their benchmark, contact them and/or the hospital's labor and delivery department if you have any questions or concerns.

You may also feel:

  • Back pain
  • Discharge from the vagina, which could be the mucus plug, amniotic fluid, urine (a little leakage is common in late pregnancy), or blood (bleeding is a sign of labor but call your doctor to confirm if you need to be seen)
  • Intestinal discomfort (you may have diarrhea)
  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • Nauseous (it's common to throw up)
  • Pelvic pressure and/or pain

You're likely feeling a mix of relief and excitement that labor has begun—and possibly some stress or worry about the looming delivery. You may have a specific birth plan in mind, or you may simply be focused on having a healthy baby. Either way, it's normal for doubts, fears, or anxieties (about such weighty issues as your ability to give birth and mother a child) to creep in. Impatience may also occur, especially if your labor progresses slower than you'd like.

Going to the Hospital

Once your contractions are coming quicker and are getting more difficult to bear it's likely time to check-in to the hospital or birthing center. Be sure not to wait too long to head to the hospital as it's better to get there a bit early rather than rushing to get any medical help you might need.

Don't forget your hospital bag with any essentials you'll want on hand, such as a change of comfortable clothing, a toothbrush, glasses or contact lens care items, your phone and charger, and possibly a pillow.

Many emotions are likely washing over you as labor intensifies. Namely, you'll be anxious to get checked by your doctor or midwife and to know how your labor is progressing. You may be worried about getting to the hospital on time and/or how the birth will go. As the pain ticks up and other signs of labor increase, you may feel overwhelmed or scared—you also may feel a sense of calm, purpose, and power as you near bringing a life into the world.

Note that it can be stressful and confusing to navigate a hospital complex from parking to the labor and delivery ward while preoccupied with being in labor—even if you've already taken a tour.

If you're unsure where to go, don't panic, the person at the reception desk or security staff (or anyone else who works at the hospital) will be able to direct you. You can also call and ask for help if needed. For example, if you find you are having trouble walking through your contractions, they can send someone with a wheelchair to take you to the right place.

You've likely already pre-registered for the birth. Still, be prepared to share your insurance information and medical history in case the hospital does not already have these records—although rest assured that if your labor impedes your ability to take care of these practical matters someone else can handle this for you and/or the admitting procedures can wait if you can't focus on that right away.

In the Birthing Room

Once you're checked into your birthing room, you'll be examined and meet the nurses, doctor, midwife, doula, and/or other staff who will be helping you and managing your delivery. Your support person (if you have someone with you) will likely be able to stay with you the entire time during labor and delivery. You will change into a hospital gown and may be hooked up to monitoring equipment to track your vitals as well as your baby's.

Your cervix will also be checked. You'll find out how dilated your cervix is (once you hit 10 centimeters, it's time to push) and if the baby is in the optimal position for birth—the ideal is low, engaged with the pelvis, and head down (vertex presentation).

You will discuss any pain management needs, if applicable, as well as what your options are for laboring, such as using a yoga ball to bounce on, walking the halls, using a tub, and/or other positions besides standing and being on the hospital bed.

If Your Doctor Isn't Available

Depending on the timing of your birth and the schedule of your regular doctor or midwife, you may end up with a different practitioner. If so, you'll want to discuss your birth plan with them and any other questions or concerns that you may have so that they know more about you and your intentions for the birth, such as whether or not you plan to use pain medications.

It can be stressful or unsettling to be with a new doctor but know that all the doctors yours works with likely share a similar philosophy—and are well-versed in labor and delivery. Ideally, you have already discussed this possibility with your practitioner and/or have met the other doctors or midwives in the practice so that you'll have a greater comfort level if this situation arises as it is fairly common.

Trust that everyone assigned to care for you is capable and ready to assist with your birth. Still, be sure to voice any questions or concerns you may have (this is also a good job for your support person to take on) to make sure all your needs are taken care of and your birth preferences are accommodated as much as possible.

Stages of Labor

Labor is divided into three stages. The first stage, which typically lasts between 12 and 19 hours, is when your cervix dilates to 10 centimeters. The second stage is when you deliver the baby and the third stage is the delivery of the placenta.

The first stage is split up into three phases (confusingly, also sometimes called stages): early, active, and transitional labor.

The 3 Phases of Stage 1 Labor

  1. Early: Dilation from 4 to 6 cm, accompanied by early contractions, which become progressively intense. Typically, you'll go to the hospital during or at the end of this phase.
  2. Active: Dilation from 6 to 8 cm, along with strong and regular contractions. Women often seek pain relief at this stage.
  3. Transition: Dilation from 8 to 10 cm. This is the most intense but quickest phase, which culminates in being ready to push out the baby.

Early labor (dilating from four to six centimeters) tends to take between six and 12 hours but can take 20 hours or more, active labor (going from six to eight centimeters) lasts around four to eight hours, and transition labor (opening up to 10 centimeters) usually takes up to a few hours.

As previously mentioned, your doctor may define the shift from one phase to the next by slightly different parameters, such as lumping active and transitional labor together. This can make determining exactly where you are in labor a bit confusing, but if you know how many centimeters dilated you are, you can track how close you are to when you get to push.

Often, you'll wait out your early labor at home and then go through the next phases at the hospital. The second stage is when you push the baby out. The pushing or delivery phase usually lasts between 20 minutes and two hours. The final stage is the delivery of the placenta, which occurs after the baby has been born and takes from five to 30 minutes.

Note that while there are average durations for each stage, your labor and delivery experience may vary significantly from the norm—and this variation is completely normal.

During the pushing (or second) stage, it's normal to be apprehensive about the pain and knowing how to do it—and whether or not you will poop (this is likely but you probably won't even notice). You also may worry about getting a tear or needing interventions like an episiotomy or forceps delivery.

Talk to your practitioner about these issues, ideally before delivery, so that you'll be aware of their normal practices and can communicate your wishes and/or make a plan that will work best for you.

Often, with controlled pushing (as in only pushing when instructed in conjunction with contractions) and massage and lubrication of the perineum, tearing will be minimal and/or avoided altogether. That said, there are no guarantees for how much you may tear or if any interventions will be required as the trajectory of your labor and delivery can change quickly and doctors need to adapt their care accordingly.

Delivering a child is taxing both physically and emotionally.

Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. You'll likely experience a mix of exhaustion, elation, apprehension, and feeling overwhelmed. You may have periods of calm punctuated by serious discomfort. At times, you may feel drained or like you can't continue or you may feel energized or anxious. However you're feeling, know that while it may seem like it's taking forever, your labor will pass—and you'll soon meet your baby.

Laboring At Home

If you are laboring at home, your doula and/or midwife will come to you will any additional equipment needed for your birth. Your birth will follow a similar pattern to those in a hospital, except that you will be in the comfort of your home and likely will be following a natural birthing plan.

You won't have access to medical interventions, so epidural or intravenous narcotic pain medications will not be possible. Most likely everything will go smoothly but be prepared that should any serious complications arise, you may need to head to the hospital.

Potential Complications

The fact is that some people have super quick labors while others take longer and/or experience more complications, such as the need for oxygen, induction (if labor is not progressing), if your water breaks without contractions, a breech baby, or a C-section.

It can be frustrating and/or deflating if you end up in the latter camp but know that all your efforts and any challenges or surprises faced along the way aren't your fault or anything to feel bad about.

A longer or more complex birth is simply part of the often unpredictable journey toward parenting, which you'll learn quickly enough doesn't always go as planned.

There are multiple induction techniques that may be used, such as applying medicine on the cervix to promote dilation and ripening, stripping or breaking the membranes (or amniotic sac), and/or using Pitocin to prompt contractions.

You may experience more monitoring (and needles) and have to spend more time in your hospital bed when using these interventions but otherwise, your laboring experience will be similar to those not being induced. Some people fear that induced labor will be more painful but as the pain experienced during labor varies so widely (and you can't know what your labor would have felt like without these interventions), it is hard to accurately quantify and compare.

If you need a C-section, it can feel disappointing. If it's unplanned, it can be scary to suddenly find yourself being wheeled into an operating room.

Know that your doctor's priority is doing what needs to be done to protect your health and the health of your baby. You shouldn't feel any pain during the surgery and will usually be able to watch the baby come out and hold them right after delivery. Your recovery will be a bit longer and you will have some pain at the incision site.

Pain Management Choices

There's often a lot of talk (and potentially pressure) around what type of pain control measures to use during labor. You can opt to go "natural" and not use any medications. Another choice is to choose to employ one or more pain management option, such as having an epidural, using intravenous pain mediations, and/or trying other remedies such as breathing techniques, visualization, or position changes.

Regardless of what other people think (and they will likely tell you whether you ask or not), whatever approach you feel is right for you, is. However, it can be helpful to come prepared with your expectations and wishes but also to keep an open mind. The truth is that you won't really know how childbirth feels or what your birth will be like until it's happening, so your needs and priorities may shift as your labor progresses.

Don't ever feel bad about requesting or using pain mediation—having an epidural doesn't lessen the beauty of your birth or diminish your valor as a mother. Likewise, don't feel pressured to take it if you don't feel the need.

All the pain management choices offered by your doctor are safe and effective should you choose to use them. Plus, know that your medications can be controlled so that you still feel everything you need to feel (just not painfully) to effectively push out the baby.

If you're planning not to use medications, understand that when people talk about the "ring of fire" when delivering without any numbing, they aren't kidding. That said, many people do endure (and sometimes relish) the experience of feeling every feeling of giving birth. The important thing is to focus on having a safe birth that addresses your care and comfort in the way that feels best to you.

A Word From Verywell

Once your baby is in your arms, typically, the pain and uncertainty of labor and delivery will recede and be replaced by relief and joy. You may experience a flood of feelings as your body recovers from childbirth (and pregnancy) and feel in awe as you focus on this tiny being. You may also begin the wondrous (and sometimes daunting) process of learning to breastfeed as well.

It's normal to feel overwhelmed, achy, and tired—along with newly in love. Ask for help if you need it, space if you want it, and enjoy holding your baby as you reflect on the amazing adventure that is bringing your child into the world.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. What are the stages of labor? Reviewed September 1, 2017.

  2. National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health. Labor and birth. Updated June 6, 2018.