During early labour, you might feel a wide range of emotions.
Anxious, uncertain, relieved, scared, excited, frustrated, nervous — even all of those things at once!
Rest assured, they’re all normal and common feelings.
It’s so important to try and relax, rest and play down any early labour signs (unless you’re concerned about your or your baby’s health), and maintain as much normality as possible.
Labour is exactly that – hard work. This is the beginning of what will likely be a long, exhausting and intense process.
Especially for first time mothers, pre-labour can last for hours or even days. This is a common reason why you might hear horror stories from other women, who said 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 entrants began their race with a sprint or bolt, they wouldn’t finish the race – they’d burn out!
Placing too much focus and energy on the early stages of labour can sabotage what could have been a much easier, more enjoyable birth. This is because sleep deprivation and lack of energy and stamina can become an even bigger issue than how you’re coping with labour pain.
How Long Will Early Labour Last?
How long early labour lasts for varies between each woman and each individual pregnancy. This is due to many factors, including the position of the baby, hormone levels, how you choose to labour (upright/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 quicker than they thought.
Find out what causes labour to start.
For some women, early labour can continue for several days or more, and can become a frustrating and testing time.
It’s so important to keep yourself distracted. See if you can think of any emotional reasons why labour is unfolding this way. It may be your own fears, not feeling ‘safe’ or comfortable, or perhaps the people around you are making you feel uptight or stressed. Your emotions and how you feel can significantly impact your labour.
What Is Early Labour Exactly?
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 zero to four centimetres dilated, after which time it becomes active labour – which is when contractions are regular and constant.
Some women will experience a mucus plug or ‘show’ (in whole or parts of it) in early labour, as a result of the cervix moving and opening. However, it’s also normal to not 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 away 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 we’d like. But your body is using this all-important early labour process as crucial preparation. This early preparation and dilation is paving the way for you to become fully dilated at ten centimetres, when your baby will be ready to be born.
Remind yourself that early labour contractions are your body working very hard, building up to stronger, longer contractions. This is very little 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 if the baby has arrived yet. So can imagine how frustrating things could get if you told them you were 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 outside of you. Dealing with family pressure and stress will tell your body it’s not safe and you can’t relax to have a baby. Ever wonder why a cat will hide somewhere quiet and dark to have her babies? She knows she will labour best undisturbed.
In early labour, some women start getting discouraging comments from family and friends, 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 may start doubting your body or your ability to birth well. Worst case scenario, this can result in a mother 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 and make the stress more managable. They are not necessary when a woman feels safe and protected in labour.
The bad news for a mother who accepts an induction of labour 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 with an epidural to relieve the pain, the baby still feels the effects of the more intense labour.
The hard and fast contractions compress blood and oxygen supply, which over time, can send them 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 the 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 4-7cms) or 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 may have heard going for huge walks or swims in early labour is beneficial, but it’s not always ideal. You may exhaust important energy stores that you’ll need further into your labour.
Pools and baths are not a good idea in early labour – the 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 waterbirth, it’s a good idea to wait until around 7 centimetres dilation (which is the stage called ‘transition’) until you jump in the water. Another reason is because the pain relief is more noticeable when you are in stronger labour. If you do want to use water for pain relief, soak under the shower instead. However 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, a bath can be helpful if you’re having a very long early labour and you’re stressed and anxious. Sometimes a bit of relaxation can help.
If your labour begins at night, try to sleep or rest as much as you can. Yes, it may 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 can lead you to feeling exhausted way too early. This can lead to you opting for pain relief and requiring interventions if 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 meaning to do. Write in your journal, scrapbooking, painting, file away photos or recipes, rearrange things you have been meaning to in a while. This way time will 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 to avoid dehydration, having regular toilet trips too, to make room for baby to come down. Food wise, you want to eat foods that are going to give you lasting energy, so carbs are a great option. Some women might say that they don’t like to eat prior to labour, out of concern they will only throw up, but it’s very important for your energy levels and for baby to eat in early labour. Some women will throw up regardless due to hormones – I’m sure most of us would rather throw up food than bile! Some women also like to eat spicy food or curries to hurry things along but be warned, if it normally gives you diarrhoea imagine what that might be like later in labour. Same with castor oil – often this causes diarrhoea for the pregnant mother.
Midwife, Brenda Manning, suggests, “If you don’t think you will remember, ask your partner to remind you to drink at least 300mls 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 As Long As Possible
Unless you are concerned, don’t feel safe or feel you cannot cope at home for much longer, staying home as long as you can will keep you off the clock in hospital. What I mean by this is as soon as you arrive in hospital, they will be keeping an eye on how long you have been in labour for and if you do not progress as fast as they would like (usually they are after around 1cm an hour which is not very generous) then you may sooner be offered inductions or other interventions to hurry things along.
This may sound enticing, however any interventions that are introduced where there are no problems evident for mother and baby only offer more opportunity for even more intervention or complications as a result of the intervention.
Read our article about the risks of induction of labour to find out about what’s involved once you’re induced or augmented (labour sped up). It will mean you will no longer be able to have a natural birth — the best you can hope for is a vaginal birth. However, an induction increases the risk of c-section.
Early Labour Tip #6: Make Sure Your Bags Are Packed And Ready To Go
This might be a silly one to mention, 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 – there are some tips from new mothers which you may not have already thought of.
Early Labour Tip #7: Keep Yourself Distracted
Hopefully you’ve planned some things to do in early labour prior to now; having a chat to your partner earlier so he can arrange some activities for you would be great! Perhaps you could hire your favourite movies, eat out at your favourite restaurant, have a massage, go out for a picnic, get your nails done – anything that will take your mind off things for a while is of great benefit in early labour.
Early Labour Tip #8: Don’t Feel Disappointed!
If your labour is taking longer to establish than you 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 labours, they have a shorter active labour. The early part of your labour is not in any way a sign of what is to come. The time it takes to get to active labour doesn’t mean that it will take that long 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 to do! Enjoy this very special time before your baby arrives – you’ve got a great big job ahead of you.