The truth of the matter is that there is no way to know for certain how long you should plan on being in labor. While the average time from the start of contractions to the birth of the baby is typically less than twenty minutes on television and in the movies, in the real world it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. Having said that, if you understand the four stages of labor, you may be able to identify when they are happening, and get a good idea of how your labor is progressing.
The first stage of labor typically will last from ten to fourteen hours. The first stage of labor has three distinct phases. During the first phase, contractions will be very light and will be twenty minutes apart or more. They will progress to about 5 minutes apart during the early phase. During the next phase, the active phase, contractions will be about 4 to 5 minutes apart, and will probably last for about a minute each time. The active phase is when you should head to the hospital. The final phase of the first stage of labor, known as the transition phase, will see longer contractions that last about a minute and a half, with only 2 or 3 minutes between.
During the second stage of labor you will be pushing. This stage can last for three hours or more, but is typically shorter. A variety of factors, such as the position of the mom, the position of the baby, and medications used can affect the duration of the second stage. Contractions space out somewhat, and will be about 4 minutes apart. The second stage ends when your baby is born.
During the third stage of labor it is time to deliver the placenta. After your baby is born you will be asked to push again, and the placenta will come out much easier than the baby. This usually comes a few minutes after birth, and usually within no more than an hour.
The postpartum stage is considered a fourth stage of labor. This is the time that your body sort of snaps back into place, and you recover so that you are able to take up your new duty of parenting.
From the beginning of the first stage of labor until the end of the third stage of labor, you should plan on being in labor between 10 and 20 hours. First-time mothers should plan on it taking even longer; for some moms with subsequent pregnancies, this can occur much faster. Check with your health care provider as to when exactly you should head to the hospital, as she may be aware of specific needs for your situation.