Realizing you are in early labor is so exciting! I go over early signs of labor, early labor symptoms, as well as tips to help you deal with those early contractions and hopefully speed things up when possible!
As a general overview childbirth is broken up into three stages of labor:
Stage 1 starts from the onset of labor all the way until the cervix has completely dilated to the full 10 cm needed for vaginal delivery. This stage includes:
- Early Labor: The time labor starts until the cervix has dilated to 3 cm. This is usually the longest part of labor, usually 8-12 hours. Contractions may be irregular and tend to be mild. Contractions last between 30-45 seconds and are 5-20 minutes apart.
- Active Labor: Dilation goes from 3cm- 7cm. Contractions are fairly regular and are 3-5 minutes apart and 60-75 seconds long.
- Transition: dilation from 7cm-10cm. Contractions are very regular, 2.5-3 minutes apart and 60-90 seconds long.
Stage 2 begins after full 10 cm dilation until the baby has been delivered.
Stage 3 of labor is the shortest and is the process of delivering the placenta.
Now that we have the basics of the stages of labor broken down we will focus on early labor.
Physical Signs of Early Labor
While there are no definitive signs that you are nearing the end of pregnancy until you are actually in full blown labor there are some signs that baby could be on their way.
One of the biggest signs is the loss of the mucus plug. The mucus plug is a plug made of mucus that develops and sits in the cervix to block the cervical canal. The point of the mucus plug is to protect your uterus from bacteria and any pathogens that can enter.
The mucus plug can be clear, white, yellow, pink or brown. It is thicker than normal discharge and might even look like mucus from your nose. The plug might have traces of blood which is totally normal! Sometimes the plug comes out all at once or might come out in smaller bits.
Unfortunately, losing your mucus plug doesn’t necessarily mean that birth is hours away. Some women lose their plug as early as 37 weeks and some only lose it right before delivery! However, if you do lose your mucus plug be excited that you are one step closer to delivery!
As your body prepares for labor you might be running to the bathroom frequently with bouts of diarrhea or extremely loose stools.
You might start feeling menstrual like camping in your stomach and lower back. These are very early contractions as your uterus starts warming up for the main event.
Water breaking/rupture of the membranes
Not all women have their water break before labor starts, for some women, this doesn’t happen until right before delivery! If your water does break be sure to note the time, odor, color, and amount. Contractions should start 24-36 hours after water breaks. If contractions do not start on their own after 24 hours it is important to contact your doctor or midwife as the risk of an infection does increase once waters are broken.
How you might be acting and feeling
You very likely will be feeling very excited at this point because the main event is just around the corner. During this time you should be able to move around freely and comfortably. You will be able to focus on other people and tasks during this time.
What to do while in Early Labor
- Sleep: Early labor is something of a waiting game. During this time do all the things you would normally do as long as you feel comfortable. Get as much rest as possible! If it is nighttime, SLEEP! You have hard work up ahead of you and you are going to want to be as rested as possible.
2. Make a meal for when you come home from the hospital. Try to distract yourself during this time so that you won’t get impatient. Remember early labor can last between 8-12 hours. As my midwife suggested making soup or a lasagna for your return from the birth center would be a great use of time during early labor!
3. Eat and Drink Plenty! Eating while food still sounds good will help you keep your stamina and energy up for later!
4. Play a Board Game: My favorite is Rummikub! It’s a great number and strategy game that will really take your mind off what’s coming. Get it soon and start playing with your partner!
5. This might also be a good time to do some quiet meditation and remind yourself of the type of labor you want to have. I think it is very helpful to read about other women’s uncomplicated births because it gave me a positive outlook on labor. I highly recommend Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth! Her book really inspired me and helped me feel positivity leading up to my due date, until my last minute labor induction which is another story entirely. You can read my birth story here.
6. Play with your older kids. This will be your last time as your smaller family unit. Enjoy that time with your other littles!
7. Watch a Movie: Save a movie that you have been wanting to watch for this special time. Or have a series picked out that you want to binge-watch. It can be a great way to occupy your mind.
8. Go for a walk: Walking can help move labor along. Take your whole family for a walk around the neighborhood!
9. Put together a shopping list: This can be a list of meal delivery or a list for a loved one who wants to help out when you bring baby home! Put some fun and easy items on the list that you can look forward to when you get home. Danish Crossaints anyone?
10. Do some gentle yoga. This can help move labor along and also relax your body.
11. Take a shower. Wash your hair, shave your legs if you are up to it. Pamper yourself a bit! It will relax you I promise!
12. Have sex: Sex produces oxytocin which stimulates contractions in the body. In the hospital, doctors will often give you Pitocin, which is synthetic oxytocin to stimulate contractions and help move labor along. So do yourself a favor and give yourself a dose of oxytocin early on to give early labor a jump start!
13. Bounce on a Yoga Ball. This can help move labor along and can really help with contractions.
14. Play a Question Game with your spouse. This can help produce feelings of intimacy and also be a good distraction! I like this game! Lots of great questions!
15. Tidy things up around the house. Don’t tire yourself out by doing anything too strenuous but cleaning up your living space can be extremely distracting. A clean space also has the benefit of being relaxing.
What your partner can do during Early Labor
Your partner should assess the situation, taking note of the time, your symptoms, etc. They should also eat, drink, and rest along with you as they are in for a long journey as well! Have your partner make sure bags are packed, and the car is ready for the trip to the hospital or birth center.
They should also encourage the production of oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates contractions in the body. Great ways to stimulate oxytocin include: massaging, laughing, and as we talked about before sex! (Do not engage in sexual intercourse if your water has already broken as this can lead to infection.)
When to go to the hospital or birth center
There is a lot of different advice on when you should head to the hospital when in labor. There are some benefits from laboring at home for as long as possible. If you allow yourself the time to labor at home where you are most comfortable it’s likely that your labor will progress more quickly. Many women head to the hospital too quickly and find that labor stalls during the check-in process. It makes sense. How easy is it to relax when you are getting asked questions and being hooked up to machines? You are also less likely to need medical intervention, such as a c-section, if you can labor at home as long as possible.
With all this in mind, it is probably safe, for most women, to follow the 4-1-1 rule. This means that contractions are 4 minutes apart, have been happening like this for at least 1 hour, and last at least 1 minute in length. You need to also keep in mind your distance from the hospital or birth center. If you are very close, like I was (less than 5 minutes away) you can wait a good long time. If you have an hour or longer drive you are probably going to want to start heading the hospital much sooner.
Note: If you are having preterm labor, are a high-risk pregnancy, or are pregnant with twins make sure you call your doctor or midwife when you think you are in labor.