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Early labor. It’s the time when things start happening. You begin telling yourself, “Finally. This is it!” And you, more than likely, are so ready to get the party started. You also are probably feeling a million other emotions as well — anxiety, nervousness, excitement, maybe you’re freaking out, uncertainty, relieved, scared…essentially you’re feeling every emotion at once because you are so ready to meet your baby, but you’re also not sure what to expect from labor. First of all, feeling all of these emotions is extremely normal and very common, but there are some things that you should do during early labor to ensure that you have a good labor and delivery. You are about to get on a crazy ride called labor so buckle up! I’m about to walk you through what to do in the beginning — early labor.
First Things First, What Is Early Labor?
If you went to a childbirth class, which hopefully you did, you learned that early labor is the longest and least intense stretch of labor. It’s the time when your cervix moves from the posterior position to the anterior (front) position and it begins to soften, efface (thin out), and it is preparing to dilate (open). People determine that you are in early labor by your dilation and your contraction pattern. For dilation, early labor is when your cervix is zero to four centimeters dilated. This is also why people normally recommend getting an epidural (at the very earliest) at 4cm; once you are in active labor. For contractions, those dull contractions that you’ll be feeling will be shorter than a minute long, more than 5 minutes spaced apart (from the start of one contraction to the start of the next contraction), and this will probably last for hours. Potentially on and off for a day or so. On average, early labor lasts between 6 and 12 hours for first time mothers. This time decreases with each child you have. But hopefully you’re eating dates at the end of your pregnancy so it won’t be as long for you. 😉
What Does Early Labor Feel Like?
Typically, early labor can feel like lower backache, aching in your lower tummy, cramps (like menstrual cramps or gas pain), or low-intensity contractions. Some women notice them immediately and other women don’t notice them until they are further in labor. Both are normal.
Since this is the longest part of labor, what do you do when you first start recognizing signs of early labor?
6 Tips For What to Do in Early Labor
1. Rest and Relax as Much as Possible!
Most women think that when they start feeling contractions that they should go on a long walk or go for a swim and do some laps to pick up the pace and speed up labor. Well I am here to tell you it really isn’t that beneficial and actually is not a good idea. Why? Those activities won’t speed up your labor and you are wasting your energy on the easiest part of your labor. I mean have you ever heard of a marathon runner starting the race off with a sprint? Absolutely not. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to finish the race because they would burn out their energy. They have a long way to go and so do you! You would be burning all of your energy and saving none of it for the toughest part of labor, which is the end and when you need to push. This is why trying to rest and relax as much as possible during early labor is best. You want to save and reserve as much stamina for the tough part.
NOTE: I recommend that you avoid getting in the tub or a pool during early labor because it will work against you. The weightlessness works against gravity and it can result in slowing down or stalling your labor. This is why it’s good to wait until you’re 7 cm dilated (which is the ‘transition’ stage) until you get in the water. If you want to use water for pain relief before you reach transition, I recommend using the shower instead. If your craving to get in the tub though before transition, only stay in there for at most 30 minutes at a time. Submerging yourself in the water before you’re 7cm can and probably will cause your labor to slow down.
If your labor begins at night, try to go back to sleep. I know that it’s easier said than done since you are now excited and ready to have your baby, but remember there is a long road and you need to rest to prepare for what’s to come.
2. Distract Yourself
In between trying to get some sleep and/or rest, you should try to keep yourself distracted. You want to keep your mind off of what’s going on inside you and focus on other things to help pass the time. Some options are:
- Watch a movie
- Write in your pregnancy journal
- Get your baby book ready
- Bake some cookies for your nurses at the hospital — they will love that thoughtful gift and it can win them over which can make them more accommodating to your wants and needs
- Get a massage
- Get your nails done
- Go out to eat — your last meal as a family of two (or more if you have other children)
- Prepare some snacks for you to nibble on throughout labor
- Make some popsicles and have them ready in your freezer for recovery
- Go on a relaxing walk around the neighborhood
You name it! Maybe you even have some last minute projects that you still need to get done. Do them! Anything that will take your mind off things for a while is of great benefit in early labor. This way time will pass by a little faster and you won’t be focusing so much on the clock. Just be sure to rest and relax between your projects to conserve your energy.
3. Keep Nourished and Hydrated
Did you know that eating light snacks and staying hydrated during early labor has been shown to reduce the total length of labor by as much as 90 minutes?! Awesome, right? This is why you want to make sure that you are drinking enough water during early labor (and labor in general) to avoid dehydration (since being dehydrated can cause you to have ineffective contractions) and for food, you want to eat foods that are going to give you lasting energy. Carbs are a great choice for that. If eating carbs feel too heavy for you to eat at that time, try having a smoothie, some fruit, a granola or protein bar. Just know that whatever you are eating in early labor you may see again during active labor or transition since it’s common to throw up in labor. This is why I don’t recommend anything fried or greasy.
NOTE: Try to avoid spicy food during early labor since it can cause you to have diarrhea during labor which is no fun.
4. Stay At Home For As Long As Possible
Because of what’s shown in the movies and what society has told us, you may think that you need to rush to the hospital as soon as your water breaks or as soon as you start feeling some regular contractions, but this simply is not true! (Unless: there is meconium in your water, you have an infection, or you feel your baby’s cord coming out — cord prolapse.) Otherwise, you can take your time until you feel that labor has reached active labor before you head to the hospital. I will say that if you are concerned, don’t feel safe, or feel you cannot cope at home for much longer, then those are times when you should go to the hospital. Otherwise, staying home as long as you can is the best option for everyone because it gives you a better chance of having a shorter and more positive experience. Why is that? Your body is familiar with your surroundings and knows that you and your baby are safe in your home. When you go to the hospital, it is a foreign setting with new sights and smells and your body can begin to slow down if you arrive to the hospital too early in labor. Also, the earlier you arrive, the more likely the hospital staff with introduce interventions.
Another benefit to staying at home as long as possible is that it will keep you off the hospital’s clock. What does that mean? Well, as soon as you check into the hospital, the hospital staff records all of your progress and keeps an eye on you because they want to make sure that you are progressing enough to their standards. They typically want you to dilate 1cm an hour (which I think is crazy because different women birth differently). But if you are not progressing the way that they would like, then this is when they will start recommending interventions — such as breaking your water, giving you pitocin, or even doing a c-section. You have to remember that it can take a while to give birth to a baby and the last thing you need is to feel pressure.
In your vulnerable state, you may start doubting your body or your ability to birth well if your medical team is making you feel stressed. This pressure can cause women to ask or accept forms of induction to help get it over with. The only problem with that is that it significantly increases your chances of having an emergency c-section. Actually, for first time mothers, it doubles your chances of needing an emergency c-section if you get induced. This is mainly because induced labor is much stronger and more intense than your natural contractions. Even with an epidural to relieve the pain, your baby still feels the effects of the more intense contractions and it can cause your baby’s heart-rate to plummet since the harder and faster contractions compress their blood and oxygen supply. This usually then ends in an emergency c-section. Sadly, mothers then think that their bodies have failed them and that their body can’t dilate and give birth to a baby. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This is why it’s important to relax and stay at home as long as you can. (Read here why you don’t want to be induced.)
5. Have Your Bags Packed and Ready to Go
Hopefully you will already have your hospital bags packed and ready, but once you start recognizing that things are beginning to happen, it’s a good time to make sure that you have everything you will need ready by the door or even in the car. If you’re not sure what to pack for the hospital, here’s my list!
6. Don’t Feel Disappointed or Discouraged!
If your labor is lasting longer than you hoped, don’t feel disappointed or discouraged. Again, early labor is the longest phase of labor and is not in any way a sign of what is to come. Just remember that having anxiety or stress can slow or stall your labor and that’s the last thing you want to do!
Labor really is like running a marathon. You need to prepare yourself in advance, pace yourself early on and have calories and fluids to keep up your energy. You may want to be on your own and zone out from normal life, or you may need someone to encourage you. It could be a doula or a friend who has had a positive experience of birth or just you and your partner. (Here are some tips on how partners can help during labor.)
Above all, listen to your body. Experiment with positions that you find comfortable and do what feels right, whether it’s getting rest or moving around. Things will eventually pick up and if you follow these tips, you will be ready for what’s to come.