by EBSCO Medical Review Board
(Vaginal Birth; Labor and Delivery)


In a vaginal birth, the baby will come out through the birth canal. Most women give birth at around 38 to 41 weeks of pregnancy. However, there is no way to know exactly when labor will happen.

Reasons for Procedure

Labor is a natural process that:

  • Positions the baby for birth
  • Delivers the baby out of the birth canal
  • Passes the placenta after birth

Possible Complications

Most births happen safely. Some problems that may happen include:

  • Tear of tissue around the vagina
  • Bleeding
  • Need to use forceps or vacuum extraction to help deliver the baby, or cesarean delivery (C-section)
  • Infection of the uterus
  • Injury to the baby
  • Blood clots

Things that may increase the risk of problems include:

  • Large baby or a baby in the wrong position inside the womb
  • Anemia
  • Infectious disease, such as active genital herpes or HIV
  • Water breaking before your contractions start
  • Diabetes
  • Bleeding disorder
  • Lung or heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Placenta positioned over the cervix—placenta previa
  • Early separation of the placenta from the uterine wall—placental abruption
  • Umbilical cord slips out of the birth canal before the baby's head—umbilical cord prolapse

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

Prenatal care will track the health of mother and baby throughout the pregnancy. It can help to identify possible problems. A support person should be chosen to help during labor and delivery. A birth plan may be made to help communicate to birth team. A childbirth class may also be helpful.

Talk to your doctor about:

  • Ways to contact them after hours and when you should call
  • Steps to take when in labor
  • Pain relief, if any, during labor
  • Perineal massage—The perineum is the area between the anus and the vagina. Massaging it through pregnancy may help to reduce your chance of trauma to that area.

Be aware of the signs of labor, which include:

  • Contractions
  • Water breaks
  • Back pain
  • Slight vaginal bleeding
True Versus False Labor

False labor is irregular contractions of the uterus. It is often called Braxton Hicks contractions. They are normal but can be painful. They are usually also felt in the stomach and not the back. Timing the contractions is a good way to tell the difference between true and false labor.

Birth Labor

Note how long it is from the start of one contraction to the start of the next. Keep a record for an hour. The length of time between true labor contractions will start to decrease. The contractions will also become longer and stronger and may be felt in your back.

At first the uterus will begin to contract and move the baby down the birth canal. The cervix will slowly enlarge to a diameter of about 10 centimeters. This will allow the baby to pass through and be delivered. This process usually takes a while. Labor can be quicker if this is not the first child.


Rhythmic breathing, meditation, and acupressure may be help in early stages. Some women do not require any other pain control.

There are many medical options for pain control. All treatments to relieve pain during labor have risks and benefits. Make sure you discuss these options with your doctor:

  • Pain medicine by IV or muscle injection:
    • Given when contractions become stronger and more painful
    • Can cross into the baby's bloodstream
  • Epidural block:
    • Liquid pain medicine injected near spinal cord
    • Given in small amounts by an anesthesiologist—a doctor who specializes in anesthesia
    • Does not cross into baby's bloodstream
    • Provides good pain relief in lower body and allows you to continue with delivery
    • Can cause headaches and drop in blood pressure, as well as changes in baby's heartbeat
  • Spinal block:
    • Liquid pain medicine injected into spinal fluid
    • Used for pain relief during delivery, especially if forceps or vacuum extraction is needed
    • Often used for C-section
    • Numbs lower half of the body and makes it harder to push
    • Provides good pain relief and works quickly
    • Can cause headaches after delivery and drop in blood pressure during labor and delivery, as well as changes in baby's heartbeat
  • Local anesthesia:
    • Injected into vagina or surrounding area
    • Used if an episiotomy (cutting near the vagina) is needed
    • Also used when vaginal tears are stitched
    • Does not relieve pain of contractions during labor

Description of the Procedure

The cervix will be checked at regular periods. A nurse will prepare you when the cervix is fully opened and the baby is moving down the birth canal. Your legs may be draped with cloths. Some doctors will clean the area around the vagina with an antiseptic solution. The doctor will tell you to push every time there is a contraction.

Legs may be placed into holders. The nurses and your support people may hold your legs in a comfortable position. This will help you to push. Your doctor may encourage you to find a position that is right for you.

You may be asked to slow pushing when the baby's head is seen at the opening to the vagina. The doctor may massage the perineum to gently stretch it to assist birth.

Once your baby's head is out, you will be asked to stop pushing. The doctor will check to make sure that the umbilical cord is not around the baby's neck. Then, you will be able to push the baby out fully. If the baby appears healthy and is breathing well, the baby may be placed on your stomach or chest. The umbilical cord will be clamped and cut. Within the next 20 minutes, the placenta will be delivered.

Vaginal Birth
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Sometimes the baby's head does not move as expected through the birth canal. If this happens, your doctor may use forceps or vacuum to move the baby.

Immediately After Procedure

Right after birth, your baby may be placed on your belly or chest. This skin-to-skin contact may lead to improved breastfeeding success. Some may begin to feed immediately, others will wait.

You may need stitches if your perineum is cut or torn. The vaginal area, perineum, and rectum will be cleansed. The belly may be massaged to help the uterus clamp down and stop bleeding. Other steps may include:

  • An ice pack will be placed on the perineum. It will help to soothe the area and decrease swelling.
  • You may be given a shot of oxytocin to help decrease bleeding.
  • You will be given pain medicine.

How Long Will It Take?

The average time for a first baby is 12 hours. This can vary greatly, though.

Will It Hurt?

Labor causes severe pain during contractions. There may be brief periods of relief after each contraction. Talk to your doctor about your options for managing pain.

Average Hospital Stay

The usual length of stay for a vaginal delivery is 1 to 3 days. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if problems arise.

Post-procedure Care

Having a baby will change you physically and emotionally.

Physical Effects

Physically, you might have the following:

  • Sore breasts—Milk coming in can cause pain in the breast. Nipples may also be sore.
  • Constipation—You may not be able to move your bowels right away after delivery.
  • Stitches may make it painful to sit or walk.
  • Hemorrhoids—Common after giving birth. They may make it painful for you to move your bowels.
  • Hot and cold flashes—This is due to your body trying to adjust to the change in hormones and blood flow levels.
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence—Pelvic muscles may need some recovery after birth. This may cause problems with control of urine and bowel movements for a short time.
  • After pains—The shrinking of your uterus can cause contractions. These can worsen when your baby nurses or with some medicine. It is normal to have this after delivery.
  • Vaginal discharge—This is heavier than your period and often has large clots. The discharge gradually fades to white or yellow and stops within 2 months.
  • Weight—Your postpartum weight will probably be about 10 pounds below your full-term weight. Water weight drops off within the first week as your body regains its salt balance.
Emotional Effects

Emotionally, you may be feeling:

  • "Baby blues"—About 80% of new moms have irritability, sadness, crying, or anxiety. This begins within days or weeks of giving birth. These feelings can result from hormonal changes, exhaustion, unexpected birth experiences, adjustments to changing roles, and a sense of lack of control over your new life.
  • Postpartum depression (PPD)—This condition is more serious and happens in 10% to 20% of new moms. It may cause mood swings, anxiety, guilt, and persistent sadness. Your baby may be several months old before PPD develops. It is more common in women with a family history of depression.
  • Postpartum psychosis—Postpartum psychosis is a rare but severe condition. Symptoms include difficulty thinking and thoughts of harming the baby. If you feel this way, call your doctor right away.
  • Sexual relations—You may not feel physically or emotionally ready for sex right away. In most cases, you will feel more interested in sex in a few weeks.
Ways to Take Care of Yourself
  • When your baby sleeps, take a nap.
  • Set aside time each day to relax with a book or listen to music.
  • Ask your doctor about when it is safe to shower, bathe, or soak in water.
  • Get plenty of exercise and fresh air.
  • Schedule regular time for you and your partner to be alone and talk.
  • Make time each day to enjoy your baby. Encourage your partner to do so, too.
  • Breastfeeding is encouraged unless your doctor tells you otherwise
  • Clean less and have easier meals. Take a break from having visitors if you feel stressed.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Talk with other new moms and create your own support group.
  • Delay having sexual intercourse and putting any objects into the vagina until you have had your 4- to 6-week check-up

Call Your Doctor

After you leave the hospital, contact your doctor if any of the following occur:

  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Increased bleeding: soaking more than 1 sanitary pad an hour
  • Wounds that become red or swollen or drain pus
  • Vaginal discharge that smells foul
  • New pain, swelling, or tenderness in your legs
  • Pain that you cannot control with the medications you were given
  • Pain, burning, urgency or frequency of urination, or persistent blood in the urine
  • Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
  • Depression, suicidal thoughts, or feelings of harming your baby
  • Breasts that are hot, red, and accompanied by fever
  • Any cracking or bleeding from the nipple or areola (the dark-colored area of the breast)

If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.


American Pregnancy Association 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 


Baby Center 

Women's Health Matters 


Depression during and after pregnancy. Office on Women's Health website. Available at: Updated July 12, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2020.

Epidural anesthesia. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: Updated March 24, 2017. Accessed March 25, 2020.

Spinal block. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: Updated August 8, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2020.

4/29/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance : Hjelmstedt A, Shenoy ST, Stener-Victorin E, Lekander M, Bhat M, Balakumaran L, Waldenström U. Acupressure to reduce labor pain: a randomized controlled trial. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2010;89(11):1453-1459.

12/9/2013 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance : Hodnett ED, Gates S, et al. Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;7:CD003766.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Mary-Beth Seymour, RN
  • Review Date: 09/2020
  • Update Date: 10/16/2020