Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 11: Opening: stage 1 of labor

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HealthWiki > A Book for Midwives > Chapter 11: Opening: stage 1 of labor


Stage 1 of labor (also called dilation) begins when contractions start to open the cervix. It ends when the cervix is completely open. Stage 1 is usually the longest part of labor, but it lasts a different amount of time at each birth. Stage 1 could be less than an hour or it could be a day and a night or more.


What happens during stage 1 of labor

Stage 1 has 3 parts: light labor, active labor, and late labor.

In light labor, the contractions are usually mild and short (about 30 seconds long) and come every 15 or 20 minutes. They are felt low in the belly or back. The contractions may hurt a little, like the cramps of monthly bleeding or mild diarrhea. Or they may not be painful at all — they may feel more like pressure or tightening. The mother can usually walk, talk, and work during these contractions.

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As labor continues, contractions get longer, stronger, and closer together. They usually start coming 3 to 5 minutes apart. This is called active labor. For most women, the labor will become very intense. The mother will usually need to stop everything and pay full attention during a contraction. She may feel tired and need to rest between contractions.

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In late labor, the contractions may last up to 1½ minutes, with only 2 or 3 minutes between them. Sometimes the mother feels that the contractions never stop. But if you put your hand on her belly, you can feel the womb get soft and then hard again.

Labor patterns in stage 1

Labors can follow many different patterns:

  • Some labors start with weak contractions and get strong slowly and steadily over several hours.
  • Some labors start slowly and suddenly speed up.
  • Some labors start strong, then get weaker or even seem to stop, and then become strong again.
  • Some labors follow other patterns.


All these labors are OK as long as they get strong enough to open the cervix completely.