Updated: Oct 29
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:
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 longer can ignore the discomfort of your labor contractions, begin using slow breathing technique during them. Think of your contraction as a wave of discomfort that gradually builds in intensity, reaches a peak, and then slowly fades away. To start, take a nice deep cleansing breath in through your nose and out through your mouth as you feel the contraction start to build. Then, as the contraction begins to reach it's peak, slow your breath down and breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 and slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 4. Continue this slow pattern until the contraction slowly fades away, and then end the contraction just as you started it, with a nice cleansing breath. Need more clarification? Check out the video below! I filmed this when I was about 35 weeks pregnant with my 3rd, back in September 2020. I go over slow breathing technique as well as few different breathing techniques you can utilize during your labor process.
Try to avoid laying on your back: Try using upright or forward leaning positions, and if laying down, try laying on your side with a pillow for support between your knees. We want to facilitate gravity to keep baby's back towards the front of our abdomen if at all possible, for best positioning through the pelvis as labor progresses.
Distract yourself: Some ideas may include playing a board game, watching a favorite Netflix or Hulu show, or listening to birth affirmations through headphones.
Hydrate and eat light meals/snacks: I always emphasize this in my classes! Remember your body needs proper hydration and nutrition to function properly (especially the hydration part).
Avoid the urge to tell the world that you're in labor: Tempting as it may be, if things take longer than expected the inquiries might get irritating.
Massage: (learn great tips for this in a prepared childbirth class, like Strong as a Mother's options). Legs, feet, upper and lower back, and shoulders can be good places for your partner to begin showing attention to early in the labor process. A handheld massage tool can be super helpful to have at home to facilitate this.
When to go to the hospital if not already there for early labor (such as in cases of labor induction)?
Always follow the advice of your healthcare provider, but a good rule of thumb for when to go to the hospital is when you are contracting about every 5 minutes, they are lasting about a minute long, for about an hour.
This is also known as the rule of 5-1-1.
You may need to go sooner IF you:
Feel strong rectal pressure
Experince a leakage of amniotic fluid and have a group beta strep culture that is positive
Live far from the hospital
Feel that things have gotten very intense very quickly
This isn’t your first baby and you had a fast labor in the past
Are not feeling the baby move as much as usual
Have been vomiting with contractions
Are experiencing vaginal bleeding
Have any other health concerns
Typically when contractions get into this 5-1-1 pattern, call your provider and ask for further instructions before proceeding to the hospital. If you reach your provider’s answering service, the on-call delivery provider should return your call within a reasonable time frame (like around 20 minutes). If you have any concerns or feel you need to go without waiting for a response from your provider, then begin your trip over to labor and delivery for triage.
Rest assured, the vast majority of individuals WILL be able to distinguish when labor is starting at some point early in the process. Being in tune with your mind and body, but not over-thinking the process in its entirety will keep you on track and focused for a great labor experience. Take each contraction one at a time, remember to try to RELAX and BREATHE above all else. You ARE stronger than you think, and the best prize in the world is just a short journey away!