Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Let's talk about Early Labor.
In a nutshell, this is when labor begins. It's not always cut and dry though, as many books make it seem. Sometimes the birthing mother experiences Prodromal Labor, or an early labor that drags and drags. This is when the mother is having contractions but they are not dilating the cervix, sometimes for days or even weeks. It's different than Braxton Hicks contractions, which are generally painless aside from the tightening sensation in the belly. Prodromal labor can be painful enough to keep you up at night, but not intense enough to produce any cervical change. It's a tricky place to be, mentally. This is a good time to rely on the pain-coping methods you learned about in your Birthing From Within class! And especially the time to practice keeping your mind calm and in *this* moment, without judging the sensations nor what might be coming in the hours and days to come.
Let's keep it real, though. Early labor can drag, even when it's not prodromal. The books estimate early labor to be around 5-7 hours (it can be way longer or way shorter, but for a first time mother early, labor tends to be on the lengthy side of things). But let's say it's 5-7 hours long. Think for a moment, what were you doing 7 hours ago? I was just going to bed, and it's now 7 in the morning. Imagine all that time being in early labor, and knowing you still have Active Labor, Transition and Pushing ahead of you? It's true that early labor is generally the longest stage of labor. So, what are you going to DO when you're in early labor?
First, remember that all of your early contractions are doing great work, even if you're not so sure of that fact. Even if dilation takes a while, remember your cervix is still softening, effacing or thinning, and your cervix is using those contractions to line itself up with the birth canal. Also, your baby might need the help of some stronger contractions to get in his best position for birth (there's more to it than just being head-down).
So, what should you do when labor begins? With 7 hours ahead of you in the easiest stage of labor, my best advice to you is to rest. REST! Your labor will never be as easy as it is in the earliest stage, meaning your contractions will pick up in intensity and you WILL be thankful for any amount of rest you have under your belt. There is not a lot of rest happening in active labor and certainly not in transition or while pushing your baby out of your body. If you use all of your energy in early labor trying to "get contractions going" as some are advised by their friends, or timing each contraction, or calling everyone to let them know you're in labor, you are setting yourself up for a long road ahead. Imagine timing each contraction for 7 hours, only to time them some more for the next 7? Or longer? It becomes mentally fatiguing at a time when mental clarity is the ONE thing you need to set yourself up for a positive experience (no matter the outcome, or the HOW baby arrives).
So. Rest. If labor starts in the overnight hours when the rest of the world is sleeping, then guess what you do? You sleep. If you can't sleep, you rest in between your contractions. Do not wake your partner, let him sleep. You'll want his bright-eyed support 12-24 hours later when you are at the end of your mental rope! 7am will arrive before you know it, and you can wake everyone up then and begin your labor dance.
If labor begins during the day, sweet! You know what you do? You REST. It's ok to go about your day but take it easy, eat your most favorite foods, stay hydrated, and distract yourself from yourself. Do whatever puts you in the "flow" of things. Maybe that's doing yoga, reading a book, heck maybe it's walking around Target. Whatever you do that helps you forget about the passage of time. Soon enough your contractions will let you know there is no time for rest or distraction and when that time comes, you will be so thankful that you listened to me and rested while you had the chance.
Get ready now, before early labor morphs into active labor. Active labor is when things get serious. It's when most mothers say, "Whoa. This *hurts* and I need help from someone who has been here before." Good thing you've got your doula all lined up on speed dial! This is the stage when your partner is thankful you have experienced labor support as well. Even if he's really supportive, he likely needs some reminders of what to do and when to do them.
If you've already had your baby, tell me how you handled Early Labor! I'd love to hear your best tips and who knows, maybe you'll pay it forward and help another birthing mother! If you have a friend who is pregnant, sent this their way!
If you found this article helpful, l'd love it if you would take a moment and leave me a comment below and share on Facebook with your pregnant and birthy friends!
In case you missed them, here are some recent blog posts on labor stages that you might find interesting, too:
For even more posts on labor stages, choosing your birth attendant, deciding who to invite to your birth and more, click on the "Blog" section here or on my website!