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Overview :

Childbirth usually begins spontaneously, about 280 days after conception, but it may be started by artificial means if the pregnancy continues past 42 weeks gestation. The average length of labor is about 14 hours for a first pregnancy and about eight hours in subsequent pregnancies. However, many women experience a much longer or shorter labor.

Labor can be described in terms of a series of phases.

First stage of labor

During the first phase of labor, the cervix dilates (opens) from 0-10 cm. This phase has an early, or latent, phase and an active phase. During the latent phase, progress is usually very slow. It may take quite a while and many contractions before the cervix dilates the first few centimeters. Contractions increase in strength as labor progresses. Most women are relatively comfortable during the latent phase and walking around is encouraged, since it naturally stimulates the process.

As labor begins, the muscular wall of the uterus begins to contract as the cervix relaxes and expands. As a portion of the amniotic sac surrounding the baby is pushed into the opening, it bursts under the pressure, releasing amniotic fluid. This is called "breaking the bag of waters."

During a contraction, the infant experiences intense pressure that pushes it against the cervix, eventually forcing the cervix to stretch open. At the same time, the contractions cause the cervix to thin. During this first stage, a woman's contractions occur more and more often and last longer and longer. The doctor or nurse will do a periodic pelvic exam to determine how the mother is progressing. If the contractions aren't forceful enough to open the cervix, a drug may be given to make the uterus contract.

As pain and discomfort increase, women may be tempted to request pain medication. If possible, though, administration of pain medication or anesthetics should be delayed until the active phase of labor begins—at which point the medication will not act to slow down or stop the labor.

The active stage of labor is faster and more efficient than the latent phase. In this phase, contractions are longer and more regular, usually occurring about every two minutes. These stronger contractions are also more painful. Women who use the breathing exercises learned in childbirth classes find that these can help cope with the pain experienced during this phase. Many women also receive some pain medication at this point—either a short-term medication, such as Nubain or Numorphan, or an epidural anesthesia.

As the cervix dilates to 8-9 cm, the phase called the transition begins. This refers to the transition from the first phase (during which the cervix dilates from 0-10 cm) and the second phase (during which the baby is pushed out through the birth canal). As the baby's head begins to descend, women begin to feel the urge to "push" or bear down. Active pushing by the mother should not begin until the second phase, since pushing too early can cause the cervix to swell or to tear and bleed. The attending healthcare practitioner should counsel the mother on when to begin to push.

Second stage of labor

As the mother enters the second stage of labor, her baby's head appears at the top of the cervix. Uterine contractions get stronger. The infant passes down the vagina, helped along by contractions of the abdominal muscles and the mother's pushing. Active pushing by the mother is very important during this phase of labor. If an epidural anesthetic is being used, many practitioners recommend decreasing the amount administered during this phase of labor so that the mother has better control over her abdominal muscles

When the top of the baby's head appears at the opening of the vagina, the birth is nearing completion. First the head passes under the pubic bone. It fills the lower vagina and stretches the perineum (the tissues between the vagina and the rectum). This position is called "crowning," since only the crown of the head is visible. When the entire head is out, the shoulders follow. The attending practitioner suctions the baby's mouth and nose to ease the baby's first breath. The rest of the baby usually slips out easily, and the umbilical cord is cut.


As the baby's head appears, the perineum may stretch so tight that the baby's progress is slowed down. If there is risk of tearing the mother's skin, the doctor may choose to make a small incision into the perineum to enlarge the vaginal opening. This is called an episiotomy. If the woman has not had an epidural or pudendal block, she will get a local anesthetic to numb the area. Once the episiotomy is made, the baby is born with a few pushes.

Third stage

In the final stage of labor, the placenta is pushed out of the vagina by the continuing uterine contractions. The placenta is pancake shaped and about 10 inches in diameter. It has been attached to the wall of the uterus and has served to convey nourishment from the mother to the fetus throughout the pregnancy. Continuing uterine contractions cause it to separate from the uterus at this point. It is important that all of the placenta be removed from the uterus. If it is not, the uterine bleeding that is normal after delivery may be much heavier.

Breech presentation

Approximately 4% of babies are in what is called the "breech" position when labor begins. In breech presentation, the baby's head is not the part pressing against the cervix. Instead the baby's bottom or legs are positioned to enter the birth canal instead of the head. An obstetrician may attempt to turn the baby to a head down position using a technique called version. This is only successful approximately half the time.

The risks of vaginal delivery with breech presentation are much higher than with a head-first presentation. The mother and attending practitioner will need to weigh the risks and make a decision on whether to deliver via a cesarean section or attempt a vaginal birth. The extent of the risk depends to a great extent on the type of breech presentation, of which there are three. Frank breech (the baby's legs are folded up against its body) is the most common and the safest for vaginal delivery. The other types are complete breech (in which the baby's legs are crossed under and in front of the body) and footling breech (in which one leg or both legs are positioned to enter the birth canal). These are not considered safe to attempt vaginal delivery.

Even in complete breech, other factors should be met before considering a vaginal birth. An ultrasound examination should be done to be sure the baby does not have an unusually large head and that the head is tilted forward (flexed) rather than back (hyperextended). Fetal monitoring and close observation of the progress of labor are also important. A slowing of labor or any indication of difficulty in the body passing through the pelvis should be an indication that it is safer to consider a cesarean section.

Forceps delivery

If the labor is not progressing as it should or if the baby appears to be in distress, the doctor may opt for a forceps delivery. A forceps is a spoon-shaped device that resembles a set of salad tongs. It is placed around the baby's head so the doctor can pull the baby gently out of the vagina.

Forceps can be used after the cervix is fully dilated, and they might be required if:

  • the umbilical has dropped down in front of the baby into the birth canal
  • the baby is too large to pass through the birth canal unaided
  • the baby shows signs of stress
  • the mother is too exhausted to push

Before placing the forceps around the baby's head, pain medication or anesthesia may be given to the mother. The doctor may use a catheter to empty the mother's bladder, and may clean the perineal area with soapy water. Often an episiotomy is done before a forceps birth, although tears can still occur.

The obstetrician slides half of the forceps at a time into the vagina and around the side of the baby's head to gently grasp the head. When both "tongs" are in place, the doctor pulls on the forceps to help the baby through the birth canal as the uterus contracts. Sometimes the baby can be delivered this way after the very next contraction.

The frequency of forceps delivery varies from one hospital to the next, depending on the experience of staff and the types of anesthesia offered at the hospital. Some obstetricians accept the need for a forceps delivery as a way to avoid cesarean birth. However, other obstetrical services do not use forceps at all.

Complications from forceps deliveries can occur. Sometimes they may cause nerve damage or temporary bruises to the baby's face. When used by an experienced physician, forceps can save the life of a baby in distress.

Vacuum-assisted birth

This method of helping a baby out of the birth canal was developed as a gentler alternative to forceps. Vacuum-assisted birth can only be used after the cervix is fully dilated (expanded), and the head of the fetus has begun to descend through the pelvis. In this procedure, the doctor uses a device called a vacuum extractor, placing a large rubber or plastic cup against the baby's head. A pump creates suction that gently pulls on the cup to ease the baby down the birth canal. The force of the suction may cause a bruise on the baby's head, but it fades away in a day or so.

The vacuum extractor is not as likely as forceps to injure the mother, and it leaves more room for the baby to pass through the pelvis. However, there may be problems in maintaining the suction during the vacuum-assisted birth, so forceps may be a better choice if it is important to remove the baby quickly.

Cesarean sections

A cesarean section, also called a c-section, is a surgical procedure in which incisions are made through a woman's abdomen and uterus to deliver her baby.

Cesarean sections are performed whenever abnormal conditions complicate labor and vaginal delivery, threatening the life or health of the mother or the baby. In 2002, just over 26% of babies were born by c-section, an increase of 7% from the previous year. The procedure may be used in cases where the mother has had a previous c-section and the area of the incision has been weakened. Dystocia, or difficult labor, is the another common reason for performing a c-section.

Difficult labor is commonly caused by one of the three following conditions: abnormalities in the mother's birth canal; abnormalities in the position of the fetus; abnormalities in the labor, including weak or infrequent contractions.

Another major factor is fetal distress, a condition where the fetus is not getting enough oxygen. Fetal brain damage can result from oxygen deprivation. Fetal distress is often related to abnormalities in the position of the fetus, or abnormalities in the birth canal, causing reduced blood flow through the placenta.

Other conditions also can make c-section advisable, such as vaginal herpes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes in the mother. Some parents choose to have a c-section because they fear the pain or unpredictability of labor or they want to avoid pelvic damage.

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