The beginning of the labor process can bring a range of emotions. Relief, fear, anxiety, excitement, nervousness... all while wondering if you've done everything you can to prepare. Maybe you're the type of person to double check your hospital bag to make sure you have all you need. Or perhaps you get so overwhelmed with the excitement that you exhaust yourself and need a nap. Rest easy, knowing that all of these responses are normal and to be expected.
In our Confident Birth class, we talk extensively about early labor and why it can be a total mind f*ck. Early labor is the beginning of what's typically the longest phase of labor and the onset of one of the toughest journeys you'll ever take. The reality is early labor can last for many hours, sometimes days and can even start and stop over the course of a few days. For some it can be more of a mental challenge than a physical one but it is a challenge nonetheless.
As a Birth Doula and Childbirth Educator, I encourage clients to view labor kind of like a marathon. It's a journey that requires preparation & training, stamina, periods of activity, periods of rest, nourishment, and mental focus. Early labor is your warm up. This is the phase of labor where you get the nerves out and begin to find your stride and your rhythm. So, let's run with that approach (no pun intended)...
What is early labor & How long does it last?
Early Labor is the first phase of the first stage of labor. During early labor your cervix is beginning to change, moving from a posterior position to an anterior one (from front to back, ultimately coming into alignment with your birth canal) and it is beginning to soften, thin and dilate. This phase of labor can be accompanied by the breaking of the waters, loss of your mucous plug, or even some light bloody show. Don't worry if all of these specific things don't happen in your early labor, as it's perfectly normal to see them at various points in the process.
Contractions or cramping typically occur sporadically and can sometimes be difficult to time as there isn't a specific pattern. The cramping can be uncomfortable like menstrual cramps or even like an upset stomach and may require some gentle comfort measures to help relief the discomfort.
Much like anything else in pregnancy & birth, the length of early labor varies from person to person. This is an infuriating answer, I know! This is why early labor can be such a challenge because there isn't one answer for everyone. On average, for a first time mom, early labor can last on average, 24 hours. But the variations of normal are pretty big here. For you, it could last a few hours or even a few days.
What should I do in early labor?
One of the biggest pieces of advice I have for clients in early labor is to STAY DISTRACTED! Because this is such an unpredictable journey, it's going to be important to keep your mind off things as long as you can. Below are a few things you can try in early labor:
Stop timing contractions. Yep, you heard me. If your contractions are inconsistent or still far apart and manageable, turn off the contraction app. Keeping an eye on the clock can increase anxiety and make your early labor feel longer than it actually is. If you feel a shift in the intensity or the frequency, time them again for about 30 minutes, then stop.
If it's night time, SLEEP. Contractions can be 10-20 minutes apart, lasting approximately 30 seconds and are usually uncomfortable but not painful. Some people are able to sleep through or between contractions. Excitement and nervousness may prevent your mind from quieting so try meditation or deep breathing to calm your mind in order to fall asleep.
Can't sleep? Stay restful. Try a warm bubble bath (only if your water hasn't broken) with some candle light and soft music. Or lie in bed with some pregnancy affirmations or white noise. Keeping your body at rest conserves your energy for the more intense and exhausting phases of labor.
If it's daytime, go about normal activity until you can no longer ignore your contractions. Try going for a leisurely walk, go to the movies, the grocery store or the mall.
Don't feel like leaving the house? Bake a birthday cake for your baby or some cookies for the Labor & Delivery nurses. Or try making 1 or 2 freezer meals for when you return from the hospital.
Call your doula! If none of these suggestions work, reach out for support. Your doula is available to you 24/7 to provide emotional and informational support in early labor. Even if you don't need her present physically, a phone call can boost your confidence and ease your mind.
Whatever techniques you use, I encourage you to enjoy the mildness of this phase of labor. When things kick up a notch you'll notice that normal activities can become quite challenging, so get any last minute tasks out of the way. You'll be happy you did! Your marathon is just beginning and while challenges will arise along the way, the joy & empowerment you'll feel once it's over is worth it!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series: Active Labor!