Motherhood + Parenting Tips

What to Expect During Labor for First Time Moms

Your Complete Guide to Preparing for Labor

If you are wondering what to expect during labor for first-time moms, know you are not alone. I was right there, too…about three years ago. Ignorance in birth is not bliss, so here’s the download of what to expect during labor!

What to expect during labor for first-time moms is important in order for you to have an amazing birth experience. All the details about labor...

How Accurate are Due Dates?

I know you are probably staring at your due date on the calendar and wondering when your little one is going to decide to make their big debut. The first thing we need to know about labor is, we really don’t know when it will come! While this may seem obvious, there is so much emphasis nowadays on your due date that many of us don’t realize it’s perfectly normal to go “past” your due date. 

When you went to the doctor and they calculated your due date, more than likely they used your last menstrual cycle as their method for deciding how far along you were. This is because pregnancy weeks are calculated based off of your cycle. The funny thing is, our cycles range on average between 21-35 days. Those two weeks of variation can make a big difference in when your baby decides to come. 

As you approach your due date, take it with a grain of salt. I don’t want you frustrated or thinking your body is “broken” when you’re 3 days past your due date. Actually, the average delivery day for first-time moms, if they are allowed to have spontaneous labor, is 41w and 1d (source)

Technically, you aren’t even considered “late” until 42w gestation. So, while no one wants to be pregnant any longer than they have to be, having patience and giving your body time will be extremely beneficial to your birth experience and recovery!


Signs that Labor is Near

Now that you know your due date may be the magical day or not, what are the signs that labor is near so you can keep an eye out? 

To help ease your curiosity about what day labor will come, there are some signs that your body is prepping for the big day! However, just like everything else in labor, take it with a grain of salt. Some mamas have no signs that labor is near before labor comes knocking on their door! 


Here some signs that labor is approaching:

  • Baby “Drops” – Ah, you can breathe again! This means your baby is settling down, nice and low to prepare for delivery.
  • Cramping/Back Pain – False contractions can amp up as labor approaches. You may feel menstrual type cramps or lower back pain and these can definitely be signs that labor is coming soon. 
  • Braxton Hicks – These Braxton Hicks or false contractions can pick up as labor draws near. Try resting, drinking lots of water, taking a warm bath or going on a slow walk to relieve them!
  • Bloody Show/Mucous Plug – As with all of these signs that labor is near, losing your mucus plug is not indicative of labor starting but this is a good sign that your cervix is ripening (softening and thinning) in preparation for delivery


Pregnant? Want to Prepare for your Birth?

Wondering what to expect during labor for first-time moms? Enroll in this free-mini online birth course where I show you exactly what to expect in labor. Plus! My 3 Top Secrets to Your Best Birth.

I want the Free Labor and Delivery Course!


How do I Prepare for My First Labor?

This is very important. Ignorance in birth is NOT bliss! So, how do you prepare for your first labor? Are you wanting a natural birth? There are lots of ways to prepare but I have found these are the best ways to make sure you are ready for your big day:

  • Educate Yourself – Understanding exactly what will happen to your body and baby during birth will definitely help you prepare for your first labor. Educating yourself will help to decrease your birth-anxiety and will actually help your labor to progress easier and more quickly! Plus, you’ll want to track and record your pregnancy, too!
  • Take a Non-Hospital Birth Class – So how do you educate yourself? Take a non-hospital birth class. Why? Because most hospital birth classes are focused on the options they provide you and how you can be a good patient rather than what your body and baby are going to do during labor, how to manage your labor pain etc. Check out this Free Labor and Delivery Course to help you prepare for your best birth!
  • Hire a Doula – Doulas are so underrated. Statistics show that having a doula in your labor room decreases your risk for medical induction, unnecessary c-sections, and less pain! I never do birth without one, but they are especially beneficial for your first baby!
  • Know-How to Create a Good Birth Atmosphere – Hormones play a crucial role in allowing labor to progress and deliver your baby safely. These hormones flourish when mama is relaxed and feels loved, cared for, safe and supported. In order for you to feel this way, make sure you have a loving, caring, safe and supported atmosphere to give birth in!
  • Find Out How to Push and Non-Medicated Ways to Manage Contractions – Learning how to push and how to manage labor pain is so crucial! You can find out how in this Free Labor and Delivery Course! Otherwise, there is lots of information on the web, just make sure to skim through and find credible resources! 
  • Prepare your Body – There is so much you can do to help prepare your body for labor. In this video, you’ll find over 20 ways to prepare for labor or naturally encourage labor to start if you are past due. Either way, these are an excellent way to give your body what it needs before labor starts.
  • Pregnancy Stretching for Optimal Baby Positioning – Getting your baby into an optimal birthing position is important for an easier birth. This pregnancy stretching routine is an excellent way to prepare for labor and can also ease some of your third-trimester aches and pains!
  • Use a Birthing Ball – Birthing balls are proven to help encourage proper baby positioning, help labor to come on-time, and can even relieve pain and speed up labor once it starts. Try these birthing ball exercises to prepare your body for labor and help it progress once you are in labor, too!

How to Tell If Your In Labor

Obviously, before we get into labor, we need to know if we are actually in labor. So how do we tell? As a first time mama, or even if you’ve had a baby but have never gone into labor on your own, you’re going to be wondering what the onset of labor will feel like. Let’s break this down.

False Labor:

  • Contractions are very sporadic and not consistent
  • They go away after rest and drinking water
  • Usually fairly weak and don’t get stronger
  • Usually, pain is only in the front of the abdomen

True Labor:

  • Contractions come and are fairly close together
  • The contractions are consistent (spaced evenly apart) and won’t go away
  • They are growing stronger and closer together
  • Generally, if you are having contractions every 5 minutes that are lasting about 1 minute for 1 hour, it’s a good assumption that labor has begun

These are the general rules of thumb. Some women can have somewhat consistent contractions that come and get stronger but then dissipate after a while. This can be known as prodromal labor which is labor starting and stopping. Basically, your body is just not quite ready to go into the active phase just yet. If you are wondering if you are in true labor, time will be your best friend in determining what your contractions are meaning.


When to Call Your Doctor/Midwife

  • You are leaking fluid/your water breaks- notice the time it broke, the color, the amount, and odor
  • You are concerned about fetal movement decreasing
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • If you are having consistent, labor-like contractions with at least 4-6 in an hour before 37 weeks gestation
  • Anytime you have questions or concerns
  • You are having contractions 4 minutes apart, lasting around 1 minute for 1 hour

What To Expect in Labor for First-time Moms 

Once labor has officially begun, here is what to expect in labor for first-time moms. While this is all very useful information, it’s also important to remember that birth is unexpected by nature. It comes when it wants, goes how long it wants, and almost always throws at least one curveball! 

Early Labor

So, now you are finally in real labor. This is it! During early labor, your cervix is going to dilate from 0cm to 3cm. These contractions are going to be mild and may feel like light menstrual cramps, tightening in the pelvic area, lower abdominal pressure and/or lower back pain. 

You will be able to talk through these contractions and be able to go about what you were doing in between each of them. Normally these contractions last about 30-45 seconds long and are on average 5-30 minutes apart. 


How Long Will Early Labor Last?

This phase of labor is usually the longest but don’t worry, it’s also the easiest, too! Early labor can last from a couple of weeks to several hours. In fact, some women don’t even feel early labor contractions and get to 3cm dilated before they even knew what was going on. 


Tips for Getting Through Early Labor

Now is a good time to get some last-minute things done around the house to get ready and keep your mind off of labor.

During Early Labor:

  • Drink water often
  • Eat small snacks
  • Stay distracted
  • Contact your spouse/birth partner
  • Contact your doctor/midwife so they know it’s started
  • Labor at home as long as you can/want
  • Call your doula
  • Start timing your contractions
  • Make sure your hospital bag and baby car seat are ready to go
  • Get ready to leave for the hospital (shower, change, etc)
  • Rest


Active Labor

If you are wondering what to expect during labor for first-time moms…this is usually the phase you are wondering about. This is when labor starts to amp up! You are now getting closer and closer to your baby with every contraction. In this phase of labor, your cervix is going to dilate from 3cm-7cm. 

What are these labor contractions going to feel like? Active labor contractions are going to be consistent, growing in strength, and becoming longer. These contractions usually last between 45-60 seconds and are on average 2-5 minutes apart. They will feel like strong menstrual cramps, increasing pelvic pressure and you may also have intense lower back pain.

what to expect during labor

How Long Will Active Labor Last?

Active labor can vary greatly but in general, this phase of labor will last about 3-8 hours long. Usually, you can plan on the longer end of things if you are a first-time mama. 


Tips for Getting Through Active Labor

During active labor, you are going to need to start relying on your birth team and your partner to get through each contraction. Throughout this phase, you will be able to help yourself progress by doing some of these tips below.

During Active Labor:

  • Stay active as much as possible
  • Change positions often
  • Use gravity (try not to lay down often)
  • Stay hydrated with water or ice chips
  • Get in the shower or warm bath to manage contractions
  • Use focused breathing to stay on top of your contractions
  • Stay distracted as much as you can
  • Walk
  • Use a birthing ball, peanut ball, get on all fours to help manage contractions


Ah, transition. The part of labor show-cased in every Hollywood film. This is the final stretch, the Hail-Mary pass, the home-run. In transition, your cervix is going to finish dilating and go from 8cm-10cm. 

During transition, contractions are going to be very strong and usually right on top of each other with small breaks in between. Transition contractions are going to be about 60-90 seconds long and only 30 seconds-2 minutes apart. These are going to feel like very intense cramps with a lot of rectal and pelvic pressure. Some of these contractions may even have multiple peaks or never fully go away before the next one starts. 


How Long Will Transition Last?

Transition is the hardest stage of labor to get through but it is the shortest! On average, transition lasts between 15 minutes- 3 hours. Just as before, the more active you are and the more you use gravity, the quicker transition may go!


Tips for Getting Through Transition

This is when you are zoned in. Noise or lights may irritate you, you may have hot/cold flashes or have nausea/vomiting. During transition you should rely heavily on your birth team. All you should focus on is one contraction at a time. 

During Transition:

  • Control your breathing to decrease pain, give your muscles oxygen and stay on top of your contractions
  • Continue to move around and use gravity as much as you can
  • Get into the bath or shower, warm water is nature’s epidural
  • Grunt, moan, or growl, these lower tones will keep your pelvic muscles relaxed while moving baby down
  • Surrender to your body, it knows what it’s doing and it will be over SO SOON!

Pushing and Birth

Once you get to 10cm, it is time to start pushing your baby down and out! At this point, you are going to be feeling an intense urge to push (if you don’t have an epidural) and will feel a lot of rectal and vaginal pressure.


How Long Will Pushing Last?

For first time moms, especially if you have an epidural, pushing can take a couple of hours. This is why changing positions and using movement and gravity as long as you can is so important! Though lots of women only push for 10 minutes. It’s hard to estimate how long you will push because so many factors play a role!


Tips for Pushing

You are going to be extremely zoned in on what your body is telling you at this point. You may get a burst of energy, contractions may slow down or decrease slightly in intensity. 

During Pushing:

  • Control your breathing
  • Try different positions if you can
  • If you have an epidural, have your birth team help you to adjust positions
  • Push during each contraction
  • Listen to your doctor or midwife if they tell you to stop pushing (this will help prevent tearing)
  • Take a deep breath and breathe your baby down slowly while you push

What Happens Right After Birth?

Congrats mama! That’s what to expect during labor for first-time moms! If you are overwhelmed, remember your body was literally made to do this and you can take this Free Labor and Delivery Course to help you feel more prepared and have the tools you need to achieve your best birth! 

Right after birth, your contractions will decrease tremendously. You will have mild contractions/cramping as your body delivers the placenta. You’ll be so relieved and distracted by your baby on your chest, you might not even notice it’s happening! 

Your doctor/midwife will help to stop your bleeding and do any stitches that need to be done (don’t worry, you’re numbed). Your nurse will massage your stomach to help stop bleeding and make sure your uterus is getting firm. 

You will do skin-skin with your little one and eventually breastfeed for the first time. This usually happens about 15-45 minutes after birth. Once you are recovering well, your nurse will also help to get up for the first time and go to the bathroom and get cleaned up a little more. 


Last-minute Things You Can Expect

Before you go, these are some last-minute things that may otherwise surprise you!

  • You May Get Sent Home – Unfortunately, some mamas may think they are in full-blown labor only to arrive and get sent home because labor hasn’t started yet or isn’t progressing enough. This is annoying but you definitely want to labor at home and not wait at the hospital for labor to start!
  • Doctor May Not Arrive Early – A lot of first-time mamas think their doctor is going to be with them throughout labor. While some doctors decide to pop in a few times, sometimes you won’t see your doctor till you are pushing. Labor can be a long process so your doctor will probably be helping other patients until it’s closer to go-time. However, if you have a midwife, you will probably see her much more frequently.
  • There is No Way To Predict Labor Pain – Not every woman feels the same amount of pain in labor. Having your body prepped, going into labor spontaneously, having a doula, and knowing how to manage pain are all great ways to help you get through your delivery. 
  • You May Poop – I know you don’t want to hear this but some moms are horrified they didn’t know before labor. When there is so much pressure on your rectum during delivery and you are pushing with all your might, if something is still in your bowel, it’s bound to come out. But don’t worry! This happens to a lot of us, and your nurse will clean it up before anyone even knows it. In fact, you probably won’t even know if you did!
  • You May Get an IV – Especially if you know you are wanting and Epidural or other medication pain management, you’ll have an IV inserted. However, even if you are hoping for a natural birth, some hospitals still require an IV just in case!
  • You Deliver Your Placenta After Baby – Once baby is out, you will also deliver your placenta. This is MUCH less painful even though you will still have some minor contractions. This usually happens between 5-25 minutes after birth.
  • You May Get a Catheter with an Epidural – Since an Epidural numbs you, lots of hospitals will insert a catheter and then remove it after birth to help keep you empty and clean. If you do get one, they usually insert after the epidural is in effect though so you probably won’t feel anything and removal is usually really simple. 


Have more pregnancy or birth questions? Join our private Facebook group and I would love to help you more with your pregnancy, birth, and motherhood journey. 

What are your biggest concerns about labor? Tell us below in the comments!

Want an Easier Birth?

Wondering what to expect during labor for first-time moms? Enroll in this free-mini birth course where I show you exactly what to expect in labor and how to have an easier birth. Plus! My 3 Top Secrets to Your Best Birth Experience.

Enroll in Free Labor and Delivery Course!




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Haley Barry

Hi Mama, I'm Haley! A nurse, wife, and fellow mama to three beautiful babies. My life's passion is to educate and empower new mothers just like you. Motherhood can be a lonely and overwhelming journey and I'm determined to change that. I help you love your pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood by giving you information, community, and support. I am so glad you are here! You can find me over at LetsMama.com Happy Mama-ing!

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  1. There are a lot of good points here when it comes to preparing for labor. Everyone is different, and it is good to read about all these differing scenarios.

  2. Honestly wish I read this before my first! I was so scared and you covered all of the points!

  3. These are all great tips. I took a childbirth class before my first birth that really helped prepare me. But I was so thankful for the guidance of my wonderful midwife. She helped me have a beautiful natural birth.

  4. this is super helpful, everyone’s labor story is so different so it can be hard to know what to expect

  5. You really covered everything here! I like how you talked about the atmosphere. So many first time mama’s are afraid to be vocal in there requests and preferences and it can really make a difference in how long early labor lasts.

  6. Wow!That’s so well explained! I wish some had told me all this when I was pregnant for the first time

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