Early Labor: What can I do to cope?

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Early Labor Length

Ahhh, early labor…the most unpredictable phase of labor in terms of length – for first time mothers, especially. Lasting anywhere from 6+ hours, and dare I say it...sometimes over a few days, it's the longest phase of labor, but the least intense, physically. It’s also the phase of labor you’re likely to experience at home with fewer members of your support team present, so it’s great to have some tools in your arsenal for how to rock through it with confidence! As a side note, about 90% of labors start with contractions, and only about 10% of labors start with the first sign of labor as the bag of waters breaking. I like to throw that out there, because a lot of women don't break their water until much later in the labor process, sometimes not until pushing.

What’s happening in your body during this time:

Your cervix is beginning to soften (efface) and open (dilate) slowly. By definition, you could be anywhere from 0-6 cm dilated. You may notice over several hours (or longer, especially if a first-time mom), that you begin to start to feel irregular, typically mild contractions about every 5-30 minutes.

What might your early labor contractions feel like?

Like waves of menstrual cramping that come and go. Some feel more discomfort from their back spreading to their front, and some feel more lower abdominal pressure with true labor contractions. Typically, your contractions will pick up in intensity and frequency as you get closer to active labor (defined as being 6-10 cm dilated). How can you tell them apart from your Braxton Hicks (warm-up) contractions? They won’t stop coming despite changing your activity level, emptying your bladder, laying down, hydrating, and will eventually develop a more consistent pattern and feel more intense than your typical Braxton Hicks contractions.

What other symptoms might you experience during early labor?

  • Breaking the bag of waters (amniotic sac that surrounds the baby) – you may notice clear or pink discharge that keeps trickling or comes in a gush. Concerning colors would be green/greenish-black, or very bloody. If you suspect you broke your water, do notify your provider with the following information:

TACO: The Time, Amount, Color, and if any Odor is present.

Other possible symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea

  • Fatigue

  • An urge to “nest”

  • Loss of mucus plug – Thicker, more mucus like discharge over days or the day of labor. Sometimes is brownish tinged (some old blood might be mixed in there). Some women do not notice this sign at all, others see it very apparently.

What can I do to cope with early labor?

Rest and Relax: Take a nap, play a board game, do some gentle stretching, take a warm shower, gently bounce on your yoga ball, but avoid blowing all your energy in this earlier phase of labor. Focus on the calm parts in between contractions.

Try to not anticipate the contractions: Until you really can’t ignore them any longer. Keep the contraction timing to a minimum until you are really developing a consistent pattern to their frequency.

Try Slow Breathing Technique: Once you no