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  • Jessica Bower (Natural Baby Doulas Certified Birth

Thriving In Early Labor

If you're pregnant, you've likely wondered what your first signs of labor will be. Will your water break in dramatic fashion in Target while you gather last minute baby supplies? Will you see the mucus plug or bloody show your childbirth educator discussed? Will you feel contractions first? What will contractions even feel like?! Every labor is different and no one knows when it will start. What we do know is that if this is your first baby, you'll likely go past your due date. When labor finally beings, you'll feel lots of emotions - hopefully more excitement than anything. I wanted to give you some of our tried and true tips to help you thrive in the early stages of your labor.

Early Labor

First of all, what is considered early labor? Early labor is the time in labor when your cervix is 0-4cm dilated. Typically, in an unmedicated labor, contractions during this time are further apart, shorter, and less intense than when moms are in active labor or transition (that's when the cervix is 5-10cm dilated). We know that the cervix doesn't always match what contractions are doing (that's why we wrote a whole blog post about why you can't trust the cervix), but this is a generality that we see a lot. Early labor contractions are usually more than 5 minutes apart, can last less than a minute, and have varying intensity. Getting through early labor and into active labor can take different amounts of time depending on the person. Some women experience virtually no early labor - once their labor starts, it hits hard and they don't recognize this time of milder and spaced out contractions. Other women experience what seems like early labor for DAYS and that's considered prodromal labor which can be challenging to handle. However, on average, early labor lasts about 6-12 hours for the typical first time mom. So what should you do during that time? Here are some tips...

1. If it's night, sleep! If it's day, ignore!

Our general rule is to sleep as long as possible if you're starting to feel contractions at night. Most of the time you can lay down and rest during early labor. If you wake up in the middle of the night and notice contractions, get up and use the bathroom, drink some water, and GO BACK TO BED. We can't emphasize enough how important it is to rest in these early stages. Remember that the average first labor is 18-24 hours... if you are not resting and sleeping some in these early stages, chances are you'll be feeling it when active labor hits. So if contractions start at night... stay in bed. If your contractions are 8 minutes apart, you might have to focus and breathe during a contraction, but then rest and doze off between the contractions. If it's during the day, you'll have to see what you feel like doing. We don't recommend trying to focus too much on every contraction. Our general rule is to ignore then until they make you stop and focus / breathe through them. If you're only having a few an hour, you can probably just keep doing what you are doing. If they are more frequent then you may want to consider taking a nap / resting in case things pick up quickly. It would be hard to work all day while in early labor and then active labor pick up in the evening. So, if you really think things are intensifying, take opportunities to rest while you can. Other things you can do to ignore contractions during the day is to make sure your bags are totally packed or to bake some healthy muffins or lactation bars for when your baby is born.

2. Eat and stay hydrated.

It's important to eat in early labor. Often times moms will feel a little nauseous and off in these early stages, but eat a regular diet as long as you can - whatever sounds good to you. Try to have balanced meals and snacks of protein and carbs. Some moms experience diarrhea in early labor and that's normal but it's also another reason to focus on hydration. Water is always wonderful, but sports drinks, coconut water, and real fruit juices and good options too. Some moms like smoothies during this time. At some point in active labor, food probably won't sound good anymore, so eat while you can.

3. The bath test.

Use hydrotherapy to see what happens to your labor. Sometimes at the end of pregnancy, moms may experience an irritated uterus that causes nonproductive contractions. Baths, especially baths with magnesium flakes, can calm an irritated uterus. If you can't get comfortable enough to go back to sleep, often times taking a bath will help you relax enough to be able to lay in bed and doze for a little while before contractions get more intense. Taking a bath will not stop your labor if this is true labor. If it's true labor, contractions will continue. Another time taking a bath can be a great idea is if you are trying to decide when to go to your birth location. If contractions are getting close together (3-5 minutes apart) and more intense, you can try getting in the bath to see if contractions stay in this pattern - if they do, then you're likely on your way out of early labor and headed to active labor. If contractions space back out by getting in the tub, then you probably have some more time to labor at home.

4. Walk. But also rest.

Often times moms want to DO something when they are in early labor. Walking can be a great thing to do to help your labor progress, help your baby's position, and distract yourself. We love walking outside if the weather is favorable. The big key with walking is to be careful not to wear yourself out. So take a 30 minute walk and then rest for a bit. Then if you want to walk more, take another walk. We always encourage your partner or a friend walking with you because even if you feel great at the start of the walk, you never know when things will intensify. Another activity that can be great to do in early labor is The Miles Circuit or to try out any of the positions you learned in your childbirth classes.

5. Timing your contractions.

Sometimes moms want to start timing their contractions when they feel the first one. While we do love the contraction apps (Full Term is a free app), we discourage timing the contractions until they are getting strong and close together. If your contractions seem like they are more than 7-8 minutes apart, don't bother timing them. You want to ignore them like we already said. Also, if you can sleep between them, you don't need to time them. Ask your care provider when they want you to arrive to your birth location and when they want you to contact them. Most providers will say to come in at either 5-1-1, 4-1-1, or 3-1-1... This means they want contractions either 5, 4, or 3 minutes apart, lasting at least one minute, and in this pattern for at least one hour.

6. When to contact your doula.

Contact us at the first sign of labor! We are here to help you walk through every stage - especially the uncertainty of early labor. If it's daytime (7:30am-9:00pm), feel free to contact us in the group text that we set up in your third trimester to let us know what you are feeling. If it's at night and you need to talk to a doula, be sure to call us because we don't hear texts at night.


- This post is largely written with the audience of a first time mom in mind. If you have a history of quick labors, you probably don't want to count on 12 hours of early labor.

- If your water breaks before labor begins, what will you do? This is an important discussion to have with your midwife / doctor at the end of your pregnancy. They may want you to contact them or they may want you to wait until contractions begin. This is why we like you to ask about this scenario during pregnancy. If you're unsure, you can always call.

- If you have unusual bleeding / meconium in your amniotic fluid, or any other concerns, always contact your midwife / doctor - this blog post is not meant to be medical advice.

- If you are having a medical induction, most of the above STILL applies. If it's nighttime, sleep as long as possible. If it's daytime, bring things to the hospital to distract yourself. Sometimes when you arrive to the hospital, they will put you on a clear liquids only diet (meaning no solid food) - ask about eating for as long as you feel like you want to eat. Inductions are typically a long process and it will most likely benefit you if you eat in the early stages. You'll still want to balance resting and walking in the hospital. And then you'll keep your doula very updated through the early stages of an induction just like you would if you were in early labor at home.

One of the keys to thriving in active labor is taking care of yourself in early labor. If you are rested, nourished, hydrated, and arriving at your birth location at the right time, you'll be off to a great start!

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