By Eliza Payne
Imagine this: You are a few days past 40 weeks of pregnancy, excited to meet your sweet baby. Just as you are getting ready for bed and notice some cramp like sensations, more intense than the Braxton Hicks contractions you often experience. You are filled with excitement thinking, “Could this be the start of labor?” As you continue getting ready for bed you notice the sensations last about thirty seconds and come every 15 or 20 minutes. Is this early labor? What do you do now?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell at first if what you are experiencing is really labor - and that’s okay. Early labor offers an invitation to embrace the mystery and unknown of how and when your baby will make its way earthside. There is usually a slow, gradual process of contractions becoming longer, stronger, and closer together. Every labor has its own unique unfolding, but often early labor is the longest phase of labor. So what are some of the most helpful things to do during this time?
Here are a few suggestions for early labor:
1. Practice patience. As you feel those first contractions, you never know exactly how much longer it will be until you hold your baby in your arms. You could be in labor for a few hours or a few days. One of the most helpful things to remember is, labor takes as long as it takes. I know it’s hard when you are excited to meet your baby, but early labor often requires a lot of waiting and patience as you let things unfold in their own timing. Try not to rush or force things to happen and practice patience instead.
2. Ignore labor until you can’t anymore. Similar to practicing patience, ignoring labor early on can help your mindset immensely. If you focus a lot on contractions too soon it can be emotionally and mentally exhausting. Try to go about your activities like normal, without thinking too much about being in labor or how long it has been. Distraction can be really beneficial at this point.
3. Rest, rest, rest!!! Especially if early labor starts in the middle of the night, try to sleep as long as you can! If you are about to go to bed and contractions are mild, try to sleep! If it is the middle of the day, try to take a nap! Do you get my point yet? Always try to rest, even if you don’t actually sleep. Restful activities will help conserve your energy so you have more of it when you need it most towards the end of labor. Some people enjoy working on a relaxing labor project alone or with their partner, like baking a special treat or working on a puzzle that you saved just for labor. A few more restful ideas: take a bath, get a massage, watch a show, read alone or with your kids, recline with your eyes closed, or listen to a meditation, calming music, an audio book or podcast.
4. Stay hydrated and eat something. Labor is an extremely physical event and your body needs plenty of fuel. Focus on staying hydrated and eating in early labor because it might be the last time you get a good meal for a while. Electrolyte beverages are especially helpful, such as coconut water, Gatorade, or homemade labor-aid (you can look up recipes online, but recipes usually include coconut water, fresh lemon juice, sea salt, and honey). Bone broth is another nourishing option. As for food, focus on high protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs to keep you full and energized. Listen to your body and eat what sounds good.
5. Create an oxytocin-rich environment. Oxytocin, the love hormone, plays a key role in labor. It can help with labor progression and also acts as a natural pain reliever, so it is essential to keep the oxytocin flowing in early labor. Try to decrease stress as much as possible and increase oxytocin by creating more love in your environment. Think cuddling, sex, massage, slow dancing with your partner, listening to music you love, watching a funny show, eating foods that bring you comfort, or anything that makes you happy and feel loved.
6. Try not to engage your thinking brain. As you go through labor, brain waves change and become increasingly slower and drop into a more primal, feeling state. To help your mind relax, try to avoid new environments that require a lot of thinking, talking, or social interactions. If the weather permits, you might enjoy being outside and connecting with nature. Try going inward and tune into your body. Don’t focus on the clock or timing contractions. Ask your partner to take care of any logistics, like last minute packing or securing childcare, so you can go deeper into a relaxed, meditative state.
7. Move intentionally. If you have rested all you can, have the energy, and are practicing patience and not trying to rush labor, there can be some really helpful movements and positions for early labor. Doing the Miles Circuit or Spinning Babies Three Balances can be very helpful to get your baby in an optimal position for labor. Any kind of gentle movement, like figure eights on a birth ball, pelvic rocks, or walking can be beneficial. Just remember not to over-do it and wear yourself out. Your energy is precious and you will likely need a lot of it later on.
8. Stay at home as long as possible. Especially if your goal is an unmedicated birth, it is a good idea to stay at home as long as possible. In early labor your baby does not need to be monitored and it is better for you to be in the comfort of your home where you can get in a good rhythm without the constant interruptions from the medical staff. Often things can progress faster at home because you can more easily incorporate all of the suggestions above. After all, when you are at home it is easier to stay patient, ignore labor, rest and relax, eat and drink, create more oxytocin, not be in your thinking brain, and move intentionally.
Early labor can be a time between worlds and you may experience a range of feelings, from excitement and nervousness. All the months of waiting and preparing for your birth have led to this moment. In the coming hours or days, you will soon be meeting your baby! Hopefully some of these tips can make your labor more of a positive, empowering experience where you discover your strength.
Hi, I'm Sara. I'm a childbirth educator and birth + postpartum doula serving Utah county. I'm a twin mom (plus one!), natural VBACer, and birth lover!