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First Time Moms: Here’s What to Expect During Labor

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Here’s what to expect during labor for first time moms, plus all the best tips to make giving birth easier and your recovery faster.

When I was pregnant with my first, I bought a book to help me through pregnancy and childbirth.

I wore that book out reading it cover to cover several times.

In the section about giving birth, it had a small bullet list with things like:

“The umbilical cord will be clamped…”
“You’ll be moved to the postpartum floor…”
“You’ll be able to leave the hospital 3-5 days after the delivery…”

And I thought that’s all there was to it!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more unprepared to give birth.

As your friend and fellow mama, I’m here to tell you all the things about labor and delivery you probably won’t get from your doctor or even the best first time mom books.

Some of it is super gross, but it’s better to know than to be caught off guard.

And some of these things are worse or better with additional deliveries so this list is for second and third-time moms too!

So here’s what to expect during labor for first time moms, plus tips to make it so much easier!

(As a note: I had a medicated/vaginal birth so some of these won’t apply to all pregnant women depending on your situation).

RELATED: First Time Mama? Here’s Everything You Need To Know!

Woman holds newborn baby in hospital bed right after giving birth.

What does the start of labor feel like?

If you’re a first time mom, you’ll want to educate yourself on what the start of labor feels like.

Unlike the movies, your water (amniotic fluid) doesn’t always break before you need to go to the hospital, and sometimes your water breaks and you don’t notice!

Labor contractions are your best indication for when to go to the hospital. In some cases, contractions don’t start until hours after your water breaks. If your water does break and you’re not experiencing contractions, let your doctor know and they’ll help you decide when to come in.

The risk of infection increases once the amniotic sac ruptures, so you may need to head into the hospital even if you aren’t contracting.

How do labor contractions feel?

We all experience pain differently, but many women describe early labor contractions as strong menstrual cramps. And you might also experience a dull ache in your lower back and abdomen.

Labor contractions do not stop or ease by changing positions like Braxton Hicks contractions, and they’ll keep coming at increasingly regular intervals. Once your contractions are coming about every 5 minutes and last for 60 seconds, it’s time to head to the hospital!

Other Signs of Early Labor:

In early labor, you may also experience bloody show and the loss of your mucus plug.

Bloody show is light pink, red or bloody vaginal discharge. This discharge is caused by ruptured blood vessels in the cervix as it effaces and dilates in preparation for labor.

You’ll likely also lose your mucus plug around this time. The mucus plug is created during pregnancy to keep bacteria from entering the uterus and harming the fetus.

This will manifest as a thick, jelly-like discharge that is clear or slightly tinged with pink.

How long does labor last for first time moms?

Active labor can last anywhere from 4-8 hours and the entire labor process can take up to 48 hours in some cases!

For first time moms, labor will often be longer, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have a baby in your arms after 8 hours of labor.

Also know that if you’ve been laboring in the hospital for more than 24 hours with no progression, it’s likely that you’ll end up delivering via c-section.

Birth by cesarean section can seem scary and intimidating, especially when you’d prepared for and expected a vaginal delivery. But, your doctor will always do what’s best for you and your baby.

They’ll take into account your and your baby’s vitals like blood pressure and heart rate to determine if a c-section is needed.

Some women even prefer having c-sections over vaginal birth. The process and recovery for this type of delivery have greatly improved over the years. And only about 15% of women (who aren’t carrying multiples, are full-term, and go into labor spontaneously) will need a c-section.

Though your doctor can highly recommend this procedure, you cannot receive a c-section against your will.

The 4 Stages of Labor

Most new moms aren’t aware that there are 4 different stages for labor and each has its own unique hallmarks.

  • The first stage of labor includes early labor, active labor, and transition:
    • Early labor is the longest portion of labor and most of it will be spent at home, monitoring contractions. When contractions make it difficult to breathe and talk, that’s a good sign to make your way to the hospital. You should be dilated about 6 cm by the end of this phase. This phase can take 12-14 hours for first time moms.
    • During active labor, contractions are longer and more intense, lasting 60-90 seconds and coming 2-5 minutes apart. You’ll have more rapid dilation in this phase which should reach 6-8 cm. First time moms can expect active labor to last 4-8 hours.
    • During transition, contractions can last 60-120 seconds and come every 2-3 minutes. This phase ends when dilation reaches 10 cm and is the shortest phase of labor.
  • In the second stage of labor you’ll start to push and experience the birth of your baby:
    • New moms generally push for -2 hours before delivering their baby. (You’ll push when contractions come and rest in between).
  • The third stage of labor involves the delivery of the placenta:
  • The fourth and final stage of labor includes the continued contraction of the uterus:
    • The uterus continues to contract in order to expel remaining birth substances and shrink to normal size. This can take 2-3 hours.

RELATED: 700+ Modern Baby Names Any Mom to Be Will Love

What to Expect During Labor For First Time Moms

Pregnant brunette woman holds up a popsicle during and takes a selfie in hospital bed.

If you’re a first time mom, you might not expect these 10 labor struggles because no one really talks about them. But, it’s important to go into labor and delivery with your eyes wide open. These are the things I wished I’d known beforehand to be prepared.

1. You don’t get to eat much during labor.

I had 36-hour labor with my first, 8-hour labor with my second, a 7-hour labor with my third and fourth.

Unfortunately, the no-eating part doesn’t get any easier.

Once they get the Pitocin going and you have an epidural, the eating usually stops. It’s ice chips or popsicles from there on out.

And it’s not like you’re only getting your nutrition from ice chips because they’ll have you on IV fluids too, but I always feel like a ravening wolf after that baby is out!

2. Pushing is hard work.

You see shows with women having a baby, and they’re screaming and sweating, and I just thought that was because they were doing it naturally and experiencing labor pain.

While some of that is true, they were sweating because pushing is a huge workout! You have to hold your breath and count to 10 and contract your abs to try and get a human baby out of you. It’s exhausting!

And it’s worse with an epidural because you’re trying to engage muscles that you can’t even feel.

I only pushed for 45 minutes with my first and 25 minutes with my second, but I hear of some women pushing for multiple hours.

Those mamas are the real MVPs.

Here’s how to push during labor: Your doctor or the nurse or midwife will probably guide you through this process, but just so you’re aware, you’ll want to push at the start of every strong contraction.

If you give birth in the hospital, the nurse will monitor your contractions on the CTG machine, and will tell you when to start.

You’ll hold your breath, count to ten, round your back and bring your legs close to your chest while you engage your abs and push.

It always helps me to close my eyes too so I can focus.

And don’t worry if you poop during delivery. It’s totally normal!

3. You may throw up.

Black and white photo of woman holding baby boy right after labor in hospital bed.

Some of the medication you get from the IV, the act of pushing, and the length of your labor could upset your stomach, so you may want to ask for a sick bag from the delivery nurse just in case.

The good news is that nurses can give you anti-nausea medication through your IV if you need it.

4. The baby comes on the doctor’s schedule.

Well, kind of.

If the baby is crowning, nothing is going to stop you from delivering.

However, if you’re being induced with your first baby, you may start pushing with just the nurses in the room. And they may stop you and wait for the doctor to get there to finish the delivery.

It adds even more anticipation to the moment you’ve been waiting for nine months!

5. You’ll likely tear down there.

Usually, with the first baby, you’re not stretched enough for the baby’s head to exit your birth canal, so your body has to give itself some extra space.

95% of new moms experience some form of tearing during delivery.

If you do tear, your doctor will give you some stitches, and your body will heal itself, so there’s no need to worry until it actually happens.

I only had minor tears with my deliveries, but I know some can be more severe.

It’s also true that if you don’t have an epidural, the shot they give you to numb before the stitches can hurt like crazy. Or they may start stitching you without anything to numb, and that’s a whole different level of pain.

Mom does skin to skin with baby as doctor pats baby's head.

6. You’ll get a fundal massage.

And no, it’s not something relaxing.

After you’ve had the baby the nurse will push on your uterus to help reduce bleeding and cramping and to get the uterus to contract back to its normal size.

This continues every few hours until your bleeding is under control.

7. You could have terrible after-cramps.

Here’s one of the biggest things first time moms don’t expect during labor: even with the fundal massage, you can still have terrible cramping!

If you choose to breastfeed, as soon as you start nursing the baby you’ll feel those all-too-familiar menstrual cramps that have been non-existent for nine months.

Basically, nursing sends a signal to your uterus to start contracting back to its pre-baby size. Pretty cool, but also very painful.

And it gets worse with each baby.

The first time was actually manageable; nothing worse than my monthly cramps. With my second baby, I thought I was going to die. The pain was super intense and was similar to contractions.

(Keep scrolling to see how to help!)

8. You’re going to bleed.

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but I wasn’t prepared for the amount or the length of the bleeding.

You haven’t had a period in nine months so Mother Nature gives you a month-long one.

You may spot for weeks after baby and the bleeding in the hospital is intense and messy so be sure you’re checking often, especially for large clots.

But don’t worry, your nurse will be checking your bleeding as well.

This leads me to my next point…

9. You’ll be wearing a diaper.

Not one like your baby, but the biggest maxi pads you’ve ever seen. They’re the length of your arm.

HUGE. But so effective.

You’ll have those and some really sexy mesh underwear.

It sounds so unattractive but you don’t want to be wearing anything nice after birth. It will get destroyed.

Also, they should give you some witch hazel pads, an ice glove, and a really nice calming spray for the stitched area. So don’t worry about packing that stuff in your hospital bag.

10. The first bowel movement is terrible.

This is the grossest part, but I feel like I have to warn you.

The first bowel movement is a nightmare. I was feeling pretty good going home from the hospital, but then I realized I needed to go #2, and I was scared.

Scared because I thought I was going to rip my stitches!

It was so painful and terrible for a few days, but it finally passed and I could function like normal again.

The doctors tell you that you can’t rip your stitches, but I’ve heard of some women who have. So fair warning!

(See my tips to avoid this below.)

RELATED: The Ultimate First Time Mom Baby Registry Checklist

Black and white photo of a nurse washing swaddled newborn baby boy in sink after delivery.

What First Time Moms Should Expect After Labor

Now that I’ve scared you about giving birth (hopefully not!), I’m going to share my tips for things to do after delivery for the mother.

1. Send the baby to the nursery.

I always recommend new moms send their babies to the nursery if the hospital allows it.

You’ll want to take advantage of the chance to sleep quietly since you’re not going to get that at home.

And I feel so much safer having a trained professional watching over my baby while I sleep.

My first two babies had problems at birth, and I am 100% positive it saved their lives because the nurses caught the problems right away.

Get as much skin-to-skin contact and bonding as you can while they’re with you (this will help with breastfeeding), and then let them be cared for by the nurses while they sleep.

2. Take your pain medication.

Remember those after-cramps I mentioned?

I didn’t take the stronger pain meds with my second baby because I thought I could handle it. I was kicking myself for not taking them as I was wincing through the pain.

Just take the meds. You’ll feel so much better if you do.

And you don’t need to go overboard with pain relief. Just take what the nurse tells you when she tells you, and you’ll be fine.

3. Ask for prune juice.

As for the bowel movement fiasco, just ask for prune juice!

My nurse was so on top of this with my second delivery and practically forced me to drink some and I was so glad that she did. It was much easier the second time. No pain. No thoughts of ripping my stitches.

They’ll also give you a stool softener, but the pain meds can make you constipated so they kind of cancel each other out.

The prune juice helps get things moving!

4. Take all the hospital supplies you can.

Those maxi pads, the mesh undies, the “magic spray.” Take it all!

They don’t sell the hospital-grade stuff at the store, so have them restock your bathroom before you leave and then take it with you! 


Is labor harder for a first-time mom?

Generally, yes. First time mom labor is typically longer than additional deliveries, making it more difficult.

In addition, your body has never been through the labor process before so it won’t know what to expect. Just know that each additional delivery should get easier.

How long does a first time mom’s labor last?

First time mom labor can last up to 48 hours in extreme cases, but labor time varies widely from mother to mother.

The 4 phases of labor each take longer for new moms to complete, with early labor generally lasting 12-14 hours and active labor another 4-8. Pushing requires an average of 1½ -2 hours, and the afterbirth process is typically another 2-4.

How do first time moms prepare for labor?

Be sure to establish a birth plan with your health care provider before going into labor.

Try exercises to fortify your pelvic floor and stay active to improve your strength for the delivery process.

Consistently take a prenatal vitamin and plan healthy, nutritious meals.

Brunette woman in floral robe holds baby girl in hospital bed after labor.

Get Access to All of My Mom Printables

Now that we’ve covered what to expect during labor, here’s some more information to make the transition to motherhood as seamless as possible. I created several printables including baby sleep schedules, a 4 week meal plan, and a stain removal guide.

As a bonus for joining my weekly-ish newsletter, you’ll get access to all of those printables (plus a few more!) Click here to download and subscribe or you can use the nifty box below.


Want More?

If you liked this post, be sure to check out all of the postpartum body changes that can happen to new moms.

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Your Turn

The goal for this post is to help women understand exactly what to expect during labor for first time moms. But, I also want to note that becoming a new mother is a beautiful and spiritual experience despite the things I mentioned above.

Hopefully now you won’t be caught off guard and can really enjoy giving birth naturally or with an epidural.

Was there anything you didn’t know about? Like what happens after birth to your body? Or how to prepare your body for labor? Let me know in the comments!

A Pinterest image with text and a new mom holding her baby with the doctor rubbing the baby's head.

Andrea Rich Nel

Thursday 6th of December 2018

Awesome post. I'm due in May 2018, and this has been an eye-opener!


Friday 7th of December 2018

How exciting! My first was born in May! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!


Tuesday 22nd of May 2018

These are great tips! I didn't know so many of these things when I had my daughter. And I only had one so I'll never have the chance to do it again (which is fine by me!). Some things I'd also add: 1. Hemorrhoids: Oh. Em. Gee! I had heard I might get hemorrhoids but I never in my wildest dreams imagined they'd be so big and SO painful! I had to lay on my side because I could barely sit. It felt like I was sitting on a humongous rock. Also, I wasn't expecting for the nurses to pull my butt cheeks apart to check on them and massage them (talk about embarrassing!). But nurses are Angel's. They taught me how to massage them and care for them so they'd heal as quickly as possible. Also, one nurse gave me the best tip in the history of tips. She told me to sit on my Boppy pillow. The cut out hole in the middle allowed me to sit comfortably and without pressure against my bottom. I sat on my Boppy pillow for weeks and took it with me everywhere! Thank you, nurse, for saving me from weeks of agony! 2. Post-partum leg swelling: A couple of days after I got home I was standing in the shower when, all of a sudden, my legs suddenly felt numb and weak but heavy. I couldn't even lift them so I called hubby to help me. When he walked in and looked at me he couldn't hide the horrified look on his face. I looked to see what he was staring at and that's when I saw it: My legs were completely swollen! Not just a little. I looked like had elephant legs. I screamed and thank goodness he caught me because I fell. He helped me to bed and went off to call the doctor. I was literally panicking. When I finally got the nurse and explained what had happened they told me those three little words I was so used to hearing by that point: This. Is. Normal. Seriously?!?! And no one thought to mention it? I never read that in the numerous books and online guides I'd read. And the doctors and nurses certainly never mentioned it. But, yeah. It was normal. Would've been nice if someone had told me BEFORE I almost had a heart attack. 3. To avoid post-partum pooping pain take a stool softener AND a probiotic/fiber supplement. This literally saved me which was a good thing because hemorrhoids (see #1)! My friend told me about this and I'll never forget how she saved me some serious pain. 4. And to reiterate what you said: Don't be a hero. Just take the stronger pain meds. It is worth it and you'll be better able to focus on your beautiful new baby instead of being consumed by pain.

While I'd wish I'd known a lot of things, I'm so glad I'll never have to so it again. But for all the soon to be mamas: May the force be with you lol.

XOXO Wanda


Tuesday 22nd of May 2018

Thank you so much for your comment Wanda!!

I was lucky enough not to experience hemorrhoids with either delivery, but it sounds so painful! I do like sitting on that donut pillow they give you in the hospital! I just asked for one in case.

I can't believe the leg swelling happened to you! I always thought it happened before/during delivery not after! That is so good to know!

The pain can be unbearable at times. I don't think it's talked about enough. All of the media just shows how happy you are with a new baby, but there is definitely a pain associated as well. I'm taking the strong meds the next time so I can enjoy it like you said!!


Jessica Ashcroft

Wednesday 2nd of August 2017

Thank you so much for sharing your experience Safire! It is true how each birth can be so different! I'm so glad you enjoyed your home birth. I have a few friends who enjoy doing it that way too!

safire claudio

Tuesday 1st of August 2017

It's amazing how different your experience in the hospital was compared to my home birth. I literally didn't do any active pushing. I think that's what prevented any tearing. I let my body do the pushing on its own. And my midwife didn't go pushing hard on my uterus afterward. She was super gentle and had me breathing while she assessed the size and position of my uterus each time. I don't understand why baby has to come on the doctors time instead of your body's time. It's bizarre to me that the hospitals have so many protocols for something our bodies were made to do on their own. I'm not judging you for having a hospital birth. You seem super comfortable with the care you received and that's great. I just don't understand western medicine much.


Tuesday 11th of August 2020

Yes! This! All of this is opposite of what you learn and do in a birth center. This route seems so much harder and tougher on a women’s body.

Zflan Swayzee

Wednesday 7th of June 2017

The nurse pushing on your uterus is a must and if it doesn't hurt, they need to dig in harder. They are checking the position and firmness of the uterus and keep track of any gushing blood and clots that might be expelled in the process. It will be every 15 minutes for an hour, 30 minutes for an hour and then every hour for 2 hours and then every shift change until you go home. A boggy or displaced uterus can be dangerous. Even though it is uncomfortable, breath and let them get in there.