How Long Does Early Labour Last? What You Should Know

How Long Does Early Labour Last? What You Should Know

Are you pregnant and wondering, ‘How long does early labour last?’

Perhaps you’re getting closer to your due date and planning how to manage early labour at home?

How Long Does Early Labour Last?

The birth of your baby is a unique experience.

No two births will be the same.

There’s no way to predict how long your labour will take. There’s certainly no easy way to answer the question ‘How long does early labour last?’ 

This is, however, the one thing most pregnant women really want to know.

What Is Early Labour?

Labour is divided into three main stages:

  • First stage: the period from the beginning of labour until the cervix is fully dilated to 10cm (also called active labour).
  • Second stage: the time after the cervix has dilated until the baby is born (also known as the pushing stage).
  • Third stage: the period from the birth of the baby until the placenta is expelled.

These stages of labour are based on a medical model of birth. In hospitals, there are set times attached to each stage, and care providers expect labour to stick to them.

In other settings, such as a home birth, there is less focus on how long a stage takes.

The first stage of labour involves three phases:

  • Early labour: the time from the beginning of labour until the cervix is dilated to 3cm
  • Active labour: as the cervix dilates from 3cm to 7cm
  • Transition: as the cervix continues to dilate from 7cm until it is fully dilated.

As you can see, there is a lot of emphasis placed on how many centimetres the cervix is dilated.

This obviously requires you to have vaginal exams, to allow the care provider to measure your cervix.

This is quite common practice in hospitals, despite there being no evidence to support the use of vaginal exams in labour.

You can read more in Vaginal Examinations – 7 Things You Should Know.

How long does early labour last? It depends on many factors. 

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Prelabour And Early Labour?

What’s the difference between prelabour and early labour? Aren’t they the same thing? The short answer is ‘No’.

Prelabour is the stage before labour really begins.

You might have irregular tightenings of the uterus that act on the cervix.

The cervix can become soft and thinner, which is called effacement. 

The main difference between prelabour and early labour is prelabour doesn’t progress into established labour.

The tightenings will stay the same length, intensity and frequency. They can also come and go at irregular times, disappearing after a few hours.

In early labour, contractions can be irregular but will stick around and eventually settle into a pattern. They will increase in strength and frequency.

It’s hard to know how long early labour lasts. And how long prelabour is won’t give you any hints. 

What Are The Very Early Signs Of Labour?

Most very pregnant women spend a great deal of time analysing their every twinge for signs of early labour. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the more obvious signs of early labour:

  • Dull, lower backache
  • Cramps similar to menstrual pain that come and go
  • Loose bowel motions
  • Bloody show
  • Waters leaking
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Be sure to read Signs Of Labour – 7 Signs You May Be In Labour for more detailed information about signs of early labour.

What Do Early Labour Pains Feel Like?

During prelabour you might feel a tightening sensation rather than a physical pain.

This is because the uterus is not yet acting on the cervix to dilate it. Rather, the cervix is softening and thinning in preparation for dilation.

In early labour, when the contractions start to open the cervix, you might feel a sensation similar to menstrual pain.

It can vary, depending on how you experience menstrual cramps. Some women notice an aching, cramping feeling in the whole pelvis.

Others might feel it quite localised where the cervix is, low down behind the pubic bone.

Over time these sensations will grow in intensity and become more regular. The contraction will start, grow in intensity, peak, then drop away. How long does early labour last? It depends on how ready your body is for labour. 

Read more in What Do Contractions Feel Like?.

How Long Does Early Labour Last?

The question on every pregnant woman’s mind is how long is labour going to last?

The answer is, no one knows. The length of labour is different for every woman and every pregnancy. It depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • How many babies you’ve had before
  • Your baby’s position
  • How effective your contractions are
  • Your environment and support people.

The first stage of labour is usually the longest.  A first time mother will generally experience 6-12 hours of first stage labour, with the average length of time being about 8 hours.

The length of labour is usually counted from the beginning of active labour and doesn’t include early labour.

Most women don’t go into hospital until they are in the active stage of labour. Hospitals will record that as the beginning of labour and not include the time of early labour in their data.

So how long does early labour last?

Early labour itself can last between 8 and 12 hours. This sounds like a long time but remember, this is when your body is shifting into labour.

Contractions are mild and likely to be irregular. They last for about 30-45 seconds, with anything from 5-30 minutes of rest between contractions.

Labour builds over time and contractions will slowly increase in frequency and intensity.

Early Labour Signs In Second Pregnancy

As mentioned earlier, labour is different for each woman. It can also vary between each pregnancy you have.

From my own experience, this certainly rings true. My first baby was born after about 7 hours of active labour, with plenty of prelabour beforehand.

My second birth couldn’t have been any different. I had no prelabour at all. My waters broke one evening and contractions started overnight, but they were completely painless.

During the next day, the contractions started to increase in intensity but were exactly 15 minutes apart. Then they suddenly changed and I went straight into transition. Active labour was recorded as 90 minutes.

In subsequent pregnancies it’s not uncommon for labour to be shorter. Quite simply this is because by now your body really gets the idea.

Women who are having their second baby often notice prelabour is just as long as it was in their first birth. But when labour gets going, it’s generally shorter.

How To Speed Up Early Labour

Many women in early labour have this idea they should do something to speed things up.

They’re excited and just can’t wait to meet the new baby.

Or perhaps they are afraid to think about how long early labour might last.

They worry about being in pain for hours and hours. 

Well-meant advice from family and friends will come flooding in: go for a walk, bounce on the birth ball, climb stairs… the list of ways to speed up labour is endless.

In fact, there is really no need to try to force early labour to speed up.

The early stage of labour is there to prime your body and brain for the work ahead.

Your brain is receiving the signals it needs to start producing more hormones. Oxytocin receptors in your uterus are reaching maximum levels.

Think of this stage as preparing for a marathon. You don’t start a marathon by sprinting from the starting line.

By the time you were halfway into the race you’d be exhausted – too tired to go on.

Doing too much during the early stage of labour can lead to the same thing. It also undermines your state of mind.

By trying to hurry things up, you’re keeping your neocortex (the thinking brain) active.

Instead, for labour to progress well, you need to quieten your thinking brain and let your primal brain take over.

You can read more in Undisturbed Labour – What Is It And Why Aim For One?.

What To Do During Early Labour?

There is no need to ‘do’ anything during early labour.

Most pregnant women want to stay at home, in their own safe environment, where they can work through their emotions during this exciting time.

Unless you have medical concerns, staying at home in early labour is the best advice.

You can rest, play your favourite music, have a bath or lie in the sun in your backyard. There’s no limit to how you can pass the time in early labour if it makes you feel good.

Avoid thinking about how long does early labour last and enjoy this time, as you get ready to meet your baby.

If you’re not sure what to do, be sure to read Early Labour – 8 Tips For A Low Stress Early Labour At Home.

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Sam McCulloch Dip CBEd CONTRIBUTOR

Sam McCulloch enjoyed talking so much about birth she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she writes novels. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.


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