Below is a childbirth cheat sheet of 10 things you should learn and understand about labor and the birth of your baby.

1. Recognize the onset of true labor
Late in pregnancy, many women will experience painful contractions that may feel like false labor — Braxton Hicks contractions that may start out strong but taper off and then stop after a while. Look for these signs, among others, that your partner is experiencing the real deal:

  • Her water may break, resulting in a trickle or a gush of fluid. When the amniotic sac (also called the bag of waters) breaks, many women spontaneously go into labor shortly after. If not, labor is often induced to minimize the risk of developing an infection. But keep in mind that contractions usually start before her water breaks.
  • Persistent lower back pain, especially if your partner also complains about a crampy, premenstrual feeling.
  • Contractions that occur at regular and increasingly shorter intervals and become longer and stronger in intensity.
  • She passes the mucus plug, which is in the cervix. This isn’t necessarily a sign that labor is imminent – it could still be several days away. But at the very least, it indicates that things are moving along.

2. Know how to time the contractions
Make sure your watch has a readable second hand, and time your partner’s contractions from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next. Count the frequency of contractions in minutes.

If she is having regular painful contractions, lasting 30 seconds or more, your partner is likely in early labor. Your doctor or midwife can help you make the decision over the phone about when to come in.

As a general rule, if the contractions are five minutes apart or less, last more than 30 seconds, and continue in that pattern for an hour, it’s time to go the hospital. Some situations call for getting to the hospital sooner, so talk to your caregiver ahead of time about what’s right for you.

3. Don’t get to the hospital too early
Don’t head to the hospital the minute your partner goes into labor. If she’s dilated to only 1 centimeter, chances are they’ll send you home or tell her to go for a walk until it’s clear she’s in labor.

Take a walk, go to the mall or a museum, hit the beach, catch a movie – do anything to help your partner take her mind off the contractions. Though it may not be easy, try not to fixate on the clock. If labor begins at night, help your partner get back to sleep for a few hours.

4. Know what to expect during labor
Forget those TV sitcom episodes where a woman goes into labor and a baby pops out by the second commercial. It sometimes happens that fast, but not usually. For most women, especially first-time mothers, labor is a journey, not an event.

Don’t expect labor to be over in just a few hours. Every woman’s experience is different, but it’s helpful to understand that there are three distinct stages of labor:

First stage
The first stage really consists of three phases:

  • Early phase. This phase typically lasts up to 12 hours although it’s usually considerably shorter for second and subsequent babies. As labor progresses, the contractions get longer and stronger.
  • Active phase. Often this phase lasts up to six hours, although it can be a lot shorter. You should be in the hospital or birth center by now or en route. Contractions are much more intense, last about 40 to 60 seconds, and are spaced 3 to 5 minutes apart.Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and coaching are all important now. If your partner is having trouble coping or she’s not interested in a drug-free labor, this is when she might opt for anepidural or other pain relief.
  • Transition phase. This phase can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. It’s here that your partner is most likely to swear at you like a truck driver. (Don’t take it personally – even women who have coped well up to this point often “lose it” during the transition phase.)Contractions last 60 to 90 seconds and come two or three minutes apart.

Second stage

strong>Pushing and birth. The second stage can last from minutes to hours – the average is about an hour for a first-time pregnancy (longer if she’s had an epidural) – and ends with a moment that’s made up in equal parts of relief and breathtaking beauty: The birth of your baby.

There’s a lot to think about during this phase: Do you want to record the birth on video? Will you want to cut the cord? (Be sure to remind your doctor or midwife if you do and be aware that some hospitals don’t allow pictures or videos in the birthing room.)

Does your partner want to try to breastfeed immediately after birth? If so, be sure to tell your doctor and nurses so they can help with that as soon as it’s safe for your baby to do so.

Third stage

Delivery of the placenta. It’s not over yet! This stage, which begins immediately after the birth of your baby and ends with the delivery of the placenta five to ten minutes later, is usually anticlimactic but necessary.

Your partner may get a case of the chills or feel very shaky during this phase. If that’s the case, be ready to offer a warm blanket and to hold your newborn while your partner’s regaining her strength.

5. Be an active participant
In the days and weeks before your baby’s due date, make sure both you and your partner are packed for the hospital, including a possible change of clothes, toiletries, a camera or video camera, and other essentials. If your partner has a birth plan, you may need to let the labor and delivery nurses know about it (you should have already discussed it with your partner’s doctor or midwife).

During early labor, remind your partner to drink plenty of liquids. Pour her a glass of nonacidic juice such as apple juice or pineapple juice, honey and water, an herbal tea, or just plain water to ward off dehydration. Offer her a bagel, yogurt, or something bland, unless her doctor has asked her not to eat during labor – she might not get anything solid to eat at the hospital while she’s giving birth. Finish packing.

When you head to the hospital, drive carefully. This isn’t the time for taking unnecessary chances. When you get to the labor room, stick around to provide comfort and support.

6. Be an advocate for your partner
The doctor or midwife and nurses are there to make sure your partner and baby do well during labor and birth. But you have a big role in helping your partner get comfortable and in communicating her wishes.

You and she also have a big say in personalizing the room. When it’s time to rest, soften the lighting. Freshen the smell by taking along aromatherapy balls, potpourri, or scented oils. Bring pictures, movies, and your own music.

7. Know how to play coach
Take your cues from your partner. Some women love having a massage or having their hair stroked during labor. Others don’t. And it may be hard to predict ahead of time what your partner will prefer.

In any case, try to reassure her that she’s doing fine and be ready to help in any way she asks. See more tips on how to be a great labor coach.

8. Be prepared
Watch videos about vaginal birthing and c-sections. Don’t be surprised if your baby’s skin looks wrinkled or his head is molded into a cone shape.

9. Cut the cord if you want
Many dads or partners choose to cut the baby’s umbilical cord in the first minutes after birth. If you want to cut the cord, don’t be shy about reminding your partner’s doctor or midwife.

10. Read further
Some commonly recommended books include: The Birth Book by William and Martha Sears; Sheila Kitzinger’s The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth; Carl Jones’s Mind Over Labor and Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide by Penny Simkin, Janet Whalley, April Bolding, Janelle Durham, and Ann Keppler.

And there’s no substitute for exchanging questions or swapping tales with other moms-to-be and their partners. The BabyCenter Communitybrings together expectant mothers by due date and provides a place for expectant dads to hang out.