When you’re in early labour, you might be feeling a wide range of emotions.
Anxiety, uncertainty, relief, excitement, frustration, nervousness, or even a little fear – it might be all of those things at once!
Rest assured, they're all normal and common feelings.
What’s really important is rest and relaxation, and unless you’re concerned about your health, or your baby’s, try to play down any early labour signs, and maintain as much normality as possible.
Labour is exactly that – hard work.
This is the beginning of what will most likely be a long, intense, and exhausting process.
Pre-labour can last for hours, or even days, especially for first time mothers. This is often why you hear ‘horror stories’ from other women, who tell you they were in labour for days.
Early labour is not active labour, but it can be uncomfortable and frustrating – even more so if you allow it to consume you. Rest assured, this article has been written to help you get over the emotional hump of early labour.
Ask yourself this: do you know of any marathon runners who begin their race with a sprint?
Of course you don't.
If marathon runners were to begin a race with a sprint or bolt, they wouldn’t ever finish – they’d burn out!
Placing too much focus and energy on the early stages of labour can sabotage what could be a much easier, more enjoyable birth.
This is because sleep deprivation and a lack of energy and stamina can become an even bigger issue than the way you’re coping with labour pain.
How Long Does Early Labour Last?
The length of early labour varies between women and with each individual pregnancy.
This is due to many factors, including the position of the baby, hormone levels, how a woman chooses to labour (upright or lying down), and so much more. Some women don’t even realise they’re in early labour, and are surprised to find they're progressing more quickly than they thought.
Find out what causes labour to start.
For some women, early labour can continue for several days or more, and can be a frustrating and testing time.
It's important to keep yourself distracted. See if you can think of any emotional reasons why labour is unfolding this way. It might be your own fears. Perhaps you’re not feeling ‘safe’ or comfortable, or perhaps the people around you are making you feel uptight or stressed. The emotions you are experiencing can have a significant impact on your labour.
What Exactly Is Early Labour?
In early labour, the cervix moves to the anterior (front) position, softens and effaces (thins), and begins to dilate.
Early labour is when you’re 0-4 centimetres dilated, after which time labour becomes active – which is when contractions are regular and constant.
In early labour, some women will experience a mucus plug or ‘show’ (in whole, or parts of it) as a result of the cervix moving and opening. However, it’s also normal not to see anything at all until later in labour.
How Important Is This Annoying Early Labour?
Early labour is a very important part of the labour process. It’s not false labour, because your body is working hard. You are making progress, even if it feels like it’s taking forever and resulting in nothing but stress and frustration!
It’s easy to become disappointed when early labour doesn’t step up as quickly as you would like. But your body is using this all-important early labour process as crucial groundwork. This early preparation and dilation are paving the way for you to become fully dilated at 10 centimetres, when your baby will be ready to be born.
Remind yourself that early labour contractions mean your body is working very hard, and building up to stronger, longer contractions. There is no reason to feel disappointed, or that your body has failed you. It's working beautifully!
Here are 8 tips and suggestions for early labour:
Early Labour Tip #1: Avoid Telling Family and Friends
You’re probably already sick of people asking you whether the baby has arrived yet. So imagine how frustrating things will get if you tell them you’re in early labour!
It’s going to take some time before your baby is actually ready to be born. Telling others you are in labour only serves to heighten the anticipation and pressure. Right now you really need to focus inwards, and forget about what's going on around you. Dealing with family pressure and stress is like telling your body it’s not safe, and you can’t relax to have a baby.
Ever wondered why a cat will hide somewhere quiet and dark to have her kittens? She knows she will labour best when undisturbed.
In early labour, some women have family and friends making discouraging comments – for example, “What? You’re still going?” or, ‘Gees, that’s a long time to be in labour. Shouldn’t they induce you or put you out of your misery by now?”
In your vulnerable state, you might start doubting your body or your ability to birth well. In the worst case scenario, this can lead to you succumbing to interventions – for example, an induction to hurry labour along (due to everyone’s anticipation getting the better of you), or pain relief to try to make the stress more manageable. These interventions are not necessary when a woman feels safe and protected in labour.
The bad news for a mother who accepts an induction of labour, just to get it over with, is an induction significantly increases the risk of emergency c-section, especially for first time mothers. This is mainly because induced labour is stronger and more intense than natural labour, with shorter breaks between contractions. Even if the mother has an epidural to relieve the pain, the baby still feels the effects of the more intense labour.
The hard and fast contractions can reduce blood and oxygen supply, which over time, can send the baby into fetal distress. This often ends in an emergency c-section as it becomes a serious issue. Sadly, the mother thinks her body has failed her but, unfortunately, this is an all too common scenario in labour wards all over the world.
Read more about induction of labour and the differences between induced labour and natural labour.
It’s important to remember that early labour is not officially established or ‘active' labour. It can take days to get to that point. So if you can, avoid telling family and friends until labour is established (active labour, which is 4-7 centimetres dilation), or even wait until you have your beautiful baby in your arms. You don’t want your phone ringing like crazy in the middle of a serious contraction!
Early Labour Tip #2: Rest, Rest, Rest!
You might have heard that long walks, or swimming, are beneficial in early labour, but these activities are not always ideal. You might exhaust important energy stores that you’ll need further into your labour.
Pools and baths are not a good idea in early labour, either. Weightlessness works against gravity, and can result in slower or stalled labour. This is one of the main reasons why, if you’re having a water birth, it’s a good idea to wait until around 7 centimetres dilation (which is the stage called ‘transition’) before you jump in the water.
Another reason is that the pain relief is more noticeable when you are in stronger labour. If you want to use water for pain relief, soak under the shower instead. If the bath is calling you in active labour, you can always give it a try, but hop out if you find it slows things down.
On the other hand, if you’re having a very long early labour, and you’re stressed and anxious, a bath can give you a little relaxation, which might help.
If your labour begins at night, try to sleep or rest as much as you can. Yes, it might be hard to sleep if you’re excited, or if the contractions are catching your attention. But you’ll need as much rest as you can for the more demanding stages of your labour. Depleting what energy you have now means you’ll feel exhausted way too early. This can lead to you opting for pain relief, and requiring interventions, because you don’t have the energy to push your baby out.
Early Labour Tip #3: Start Some Projects You Have Been Meaning To Do
Early labour is a great time to have some distractions, especially in the form of projects you have been planning to do. Write in your journal, do some scrapbooking or painting, file away photos or recipes, or rearrange things you have been meaning to for a while. It will make time pass a little faster, and you will have achieved something at a time when you might feel like you aren’t achieving much at all! Even though you most definitely are!
Early Labour Tip #4: Keep Eating and Drinking
Keep up your water levels. That way you’ll avoid dehydration, and have regular toilet trips too, to make room for baby to come down. When you eat, choose foods that will give you lasting energy; carbs are a great option.
Some women say they don’t like to eat prior to labour, because they’re afraid they will only throw up. It’s very important, however, to eat in early labour – for your energy levels, and for your baby. Women will sometimes throw up regardless, due to hormones, and I’m sure most of us would rather throw up food than bile!
Other women say they like to eat spicy food, or curries, to hurry things along. But be warned. If that type of food normally gives you diarrhoea, imagine what it might be like later in labour. The same applies to castor oil. It often often causes diarrhoea in pregnant mothers, and it’s the last thing you want to be worrying about while in labour.
Midwife, Brenda Manning, has a suggestion: “If you don’t think you will remember, ask your partner to remind you to drink at least 300 mls of water every couple of hours, to avoid dehydration, which can result in fatigue and a poorly functioning uterus. Eating and drinking during labour has been shown to reduce the total length of labour by as much as 90 minutes. Eat light, easily digested food”.
Early Labour Tip #5: Stay At Home For As Long As Possible
Unless you are concerned, you don’t feel safe, or you feel you cannot cope at home for much longer, staying at home for as long as you can will keep you ‘off the clock’ in hospital.
By this I mean that as soon as you arrive in hospital, they will be keeping an eye on how long you have been in labour, and if you do not progress as fast as they would like (usually they are expecting about 1cm per hour, which is not very generous) then they might offer you inductions, or other interventions, to hurry things along.
This might sound enticing, but any interventions that are introduced where there are no problems evident for mother and baby only offer the opportunity for even more interventions, and potential complications as a result.
Read our article about the risks of induction of labour to find out about what’s involved once you’re induced or augmented (where labour is sped up). It will mean you can no longer have a natural birth, and the best you can hope for is a vaginal birth. An induction, however, increases the risk of c-section.
Early Labour Tip #6: Make Sure Your Bags Are Packed And Ready To Go
It might seem silly to mention this one; many mums have their bags packed well before their estimated due date. BellyBelly has an article, What To Pack For Your Labour Bag, which is worth a read, and has some tips from new mothers that you might not have thought of already.
Early Labour Tip #7: Keep Yourself Distracted
You’ve probably already planned some things to do in early labour. It’s a great idea to have a chat with your partner, ahead of time, so he can arrange some activities for you. Perhaps you could hire your favourite movies, eat out at your favourite restaurant, have a massage, go out for a picnic, or get your nails done. Anything that takes your mind off things for a while is a huge benefit in early labour.
Early Labour Tip #8: Don’t Feel Disappointed!
If your labour is taking longer to establish than you had hoped, don’t feel disappointed! Your body is working very hard and, if its any consolation, some women find that when they have longer early labour, they have a shorter active labour. The early part of your labour, however, is not in any way a sign of what is to come. The time it takes to get to active labour doesn’t have any effect on the time it takes to get to the next stage.
Remember, feeling anxiety or stress can slow or stall your labour – and that’s the last thing you want! Enjoy this very special time before your baby arrives. You’ve still got a great big job ahead of you.