Increased cortisol release in parturient cows may either represent a stress response or is part of the endocrine changes that initiate calving. Acute stress elicits an increase in heart rate and decrease in heart rate variability (HRV). Therefore, we analyzed cortisol concentration, heart rate and HRV variables standard deviation of beat-to-beat interval (SDRR) and root mean square of successive beat-to-beat intervals (RMSSD) in dairy cows allowed to calve spontaneously (SPON, n = 6) or with PGF2α-induced preterm parturition (PG, n = 6). We hypothesized that calving is a stressor, but induced parturition is less stressful than term calving. Saliva collection for cortisol analysis and electrocardiogram recordings for heart rate and HRV analysis were performed from 32 hours before to 18.3 ± 0.7 hours after delivery. Cortisol concentration increased in SPON and PG cows, peaked 15 minutes after delivery (P < 0.001) but was higher in SPON versus PG cows (P < 0.001) during and within 2 hours after calving. Heart rate peaked during the expulsive phase of labor and was higher in SPON than in PG cows (time × group P < 0.01). The standard deviation of beat-to-beat interval and RMSSD peaked at the end of the expulsive phase of labor (P < 0.001), indicating high vagal activity. Standard deviation of beat-to-beat interval (P < 0.01) and RMSSD (P < 0.05) were higher in SPON versus PG cows. Based on physiological stress parameters, calving is perceived as stressful but expulsion of the calf is associated with a transiently increased vagal tone which may enhance uterine contractility.