Spontaneous vaginal deliveries are the most common form of giving birth in the United States. It involves giving birth after the natural onset of labor, without any need for tools to remove the baby.

Vaginal delivery is the method of childbirth most health experts recommend for women whose babies have reached full term. Compared to other methods of childbirth, such as a cesarean delivery and induced labor, it’s the simplest kind of delivery process.

A spontaneous vaginal delivery is a vaginal delivery that happens on its own, without requiring doctors to use tools to help pull the baby out. This occurs after a pregnant woman goes through labor. Labor opens, or dilates, her cervix to at least 10 centimeters.

Labor usually begins with the passing of a woman’s mucous plug. This is a clot of mucous that protects the uterus from bacteria during pregnancy. Soon after, a woman’s water may break. This is also called a rupture of membranes. The water might not break until well after labor is established, even right before delivery. As labor progresses, strong contractions help push the baby into the birth canal.

The length of the labor process varies from woman to woman. Women giving birth for the first time tend to go through labor for 12 to 24 hours, while women who have previously delivered a child may only go through labor for 6 to 8 hours.

These are the three stages of labor that signal a spontaneous vaginal delivery is about to occur:

  1. Contractions soften and dilate the cervix until it’s flexible and wide enough for the baby to exit the mother’s uterus.
  2. The mother must push to move her baby down her birth canal until it’s born.
  3. Within an hour, the mother pushes out her placenta, the organ connecting the mother and the baby through the umbilical cord and providing nutrition and oxygen.

Of the almost 4 million births that occur in the United States each year, most are spontaneous vaginal deliveries. However, spontaneous vaginal deliveries are not advised for all pregnant women.

Because of possible health risks for the mother, child, or both, experts recommend that women with the following conditions avoid spontaneous vaginal deliveries:

  • complete placenta previa, or when a baby’s placenta fully covers its mother’s cervix
  • herpes virus with active lesions
  • untreated HIV infection
  • more than one or two previous cesarean deliveries or uterine surgeries

Cesarean delivery is the desired alternative for women who have these conditions.

Childbirth classes can give you more confidence before it comes time to go into labor and deliver your baby. In these classes, you can ask questions about the labor and delivery process. You’ll learn:

  • how to tell when you’re going into labor
  • your options for pain management (from relaxation and visualization methods to medications like epidural blocks)
  • about possible complications that can happen during labor and delivery
  • how to care for a newborn
  • how to work with your partner or labor coach

When labor begins you should try to rest, stay hydrated, eat lightly, and start to gather friends and family members to help you with the birth process. It’s important to stay calm, relaxed, and positive. Feelings of fear, nervousness, and tension can cause the release of adrenaline and slow the labor process.

You are in active labor when the contractions get longer, stronger, and closer together. Call your birth center, hospital, or midwife if you have questions while you are in labor. Have someone take you to the hospital when you find it hard to talk, walk, or move during your contractions or if your water breaks. Remember, it’s always better to go to the hospital too early — and be sent back home — than to get to the hospital when your labor is too far along.