Labor is broken down into different stages and phases. It can be confusing, but each stage and phase has different signs, lengths, and difficultness. The first stage is broken down into three phases, which include: early labor, active labor and transition. The second stage is after you have completely dilated and you are ready to push your baby out. The third and final stage is after your baby is born and you deliver your placenta.
Pre-labor is also something to take note of. Some women may notice these signs and some may not. Some pre-labor signs consist of:
- Your baby dropping. You can breathe! This is also referred to as ‘lightening.’ When the baby “drops”, he/she is getting in position to come down the birth canal.
- Increase ‘Braxton-Hicks contractions.’ These contractions are little practices for the real deal, in a few weeks.
- Your cervix may dilate a little bit.
- You may have some diarrhea.
- Joints may feel looser.
- Change in energy levels. You may become more tired or get a burst of energy.
If you are only 37 weeks pregnant or earlier and you begin to notice any of these signs, it is critical you contact your provider. These may be signs you are indeed about to start early labor, but it would be considered ‘preterm labor’ in this incidence. This can be scary and be a danger to your baby because it has not developed all the way yet. In a lot of cases, a baby delivered at 37 weeks will be okay with the right care and precautions.
When early labor, also known as latent labor, begins, it can be exciting and scary all at the same time. A lot of women do not even recognize they are in early labor until it is almost done, or they do not know at all. Some women may believe they are experiencing Braxton-Hicks contractions and not realize it may actually be early labor. Braxton-Hicks contractions are uterine contractions that happen sporadically that can happen very early in pregnancy and sometimes you may not even notice them.
Contractions in early labor may last 30 to 45 seconds and come every 20 minutes or even sooner. There is no reason to start paying any attention until the contractions become stronger, are closer together, and are consistent. Early labor is the time when your cervix is effacing or softening and dilating. Every time you contract, this is how your cervix begins to efface and dilate. When you are in early labor, your cervix usually dilates from 0 to 4 cm. This may be the longest stage of labor, but also the least intense of labor.
‘Effacement’ and ‘dilation’ are two common terms used frequently when it comes to pregnancy and labor. Knowing these two terms would be beneficial to you. Effacement is the ripening of your cervix. In other words, your cervix is beginning to soften and thin out. Effacement can begin a few days or weeks before early labor begins. Dilation is the opening of your cervix. Dilation of your cervix is measured between 0 to 10 centimeters. Your cervix will dilate 0 to 4 centimeters in the early labor stage, and will dilate from 4 to 10 centimeters in active labor. Dilation can also begin a few days or weeks before early labor.
It seems when you watch movies or television shows, the start of labor always happens when a woman’s water breaks, which does not always happen. A woman may begin early labor and have contractions, through all phases of labor, without the water breaking until the end. You may lose your mucus plug, or have bloody show, which is another sign your cervix is dilating and preparing for birth.
Your mucus plug or increase vaginal discharge may be another sign you are in early labor or near the stages of early labor. This plug is what helped protect your baby from the outside world and infection. When you notice the loss of your mucus plug, you know your baby will be here very soon!
Another common sign of early labor may be just around the corner, is nesting or a spurt of energy. It is common weeks or days before early labor starts that women begin organizing, cleaning, and cooking meals and more. It really is not understood why this happens, but remember not to wear yourself out because you need to save all your energy for labor!
It is common for early labor to last hours or in some cases, even days. This may sound scary, but early labor is not the most intense part of the process. It may be uncomfortable and frustrating, but the longer you can labor at home, the better. In most cases, if you show up at a hospital and you are not progressing that much, they may send you home until contractions are stronger and closer together. It is important to stay calm and relaxed so your body can release more of the hormone ‘oxytocin,’ so your labor can progress.
Early labor is the perfect time to prepare you for the rest of labor, more intense stages of labor. For a first time mom, it may be hard to not think about every contraction and the right time to go to the hospital (When is it?). It is important to remember that this is the “easiest” part of labor, so enjoy it and save your energy for later.
Here are some things to remember once those small contractions begin.
- Rest – Rest is by far the most important thing to do before your labor really kicks in. A lot of woman and providers compare labor to a marathon. Early labor is pretty much your warm up before it really kicks into gear. Some women may take a nap during this time. If early labor begins in the middle of the night, they may go back to bed and try to get a good night’s sleep.
- Eat and Drink – Food and water are what helps provide energy to you when you are in labor. Have you ever been so busy and gone hours without eating or drinking some water? By the time you realize you have not eaten or drank anything, you are exhausted and have no energy. It is important to snack on some healthy options and drink plenty of water. Some healthy snack options may include toast and peanut butter, banana, apple, simple soups, or smoothies. In most cases, when you arrive where you are giving birth, most practitioners will not let you eat and drink while in labor.
- Keep yourself distracted – If your contractions are too intense to take a nap, make sure you still try to keep yourself distracted. You can watch a favorite movie, go for a walk, bake a cake, play games, call friends to come hang out and chat with you, etc.
- Stay at home as long as possible – One you arrive at the hospital, the nurses and doctors begin keeping a close eye on you and the clock. They will keep an eye on how long you have been laboring and how far you are progressing. If they feel you are not moving along fast enough on their terms, this is when interventions may become more likely. Interventions such as oxytocin or cesarean, which may cause more issues to a mother in labor than helping. If you can manage your contractions at home, stay there! Also, hiring a doula who can be with you to help comfort you and knows when a good time to arrive at the hospital may be ideal. Of course, if at any point you are concerned about yourself or your baby, go to the hospital.
Some of these signs may happen in pre-labor, but when early labor begins, there are several other signs besides contractions that include:
- Menstrual like cramps.
- Pelvic Pressure or lightening – These fall hand-in-hand. Your baby will drop relieving pressure on your diaphragm, allowing you to breathe again! Which is great because you are going to need to breathe a lot during labor. On the other hand, you may feel pressure in your pelvic area because your baby is setting up to come down the birth canal.
- Backaches – You may have had backaches through most of your pregnancy, but you may begin feeling actual pain. This can be a sign of back labor, which can be common in women.
- Indigestion – Yes, indigestion can be a sign of labor!
- Diarrhea – Your body begins to release prostaglandins, which help you dilate and soften the cervix. Prostaglandins also hyper-stimulate your bowels, which may cause diarrhea.
- Bloody show which is a blood-tinged mucous discharge.
- Water breaking – Sometimes your water may not break at all, which is normal.
- Involuntary shivering – Sometimes, some women will uncontrollably shiver even if they are not cold. This can be common and happens when your body is trying to relieve tension.
Practicing your breathing exercises or visualization exercises during early labor may be a good idea before active labor begins. Using breathing techniques such as HypnoBirthing, the Bradley Method or the Lamaze Method.
- HypnoBirthing has become a more popular way to stay calm and focused during childbirth. It is a calm and natural way for the mother to connect deeply through hypnotic relaxation techniques.
- The Bradley Method teaches natural childbirth. The Bradley Method believes that if the mother is educated and prepared properly, they can give birth naturally.
- The Lamaze Method is a classic birthing preparation that has been around for years. This method focuses mainly on breathing methods to help with pain during child labor.
While in early labor, you may have discomfort in different areas of your body. This is when having a doula and/or your partner available, to help you get through these discomforts, before going to the hospital is ideal. Having a doula available that is knowledgeable with certain massages, stretches, and movements to take away discomfort will help ease early labor. Some things a doula may suggest and help you with may include:
- Listening to relaxing music.
- Gentle massage.
- Take a hot shower or bath. Taking a bath is ideally avoided until you are dilated about 7 cm otherwise, it may stall your labor.
- Apply ice packs or heat to lower back.
- Placing washcloths on forehead.
- Relaxed abdominal breathing.
- Go to the bathroom at least once an hour.
- Visualization – Visualizing your baby is moving down the birth canal and that each contraction is a positive thing will help you relax and for your labor to progress.
Should You Hire a Doula?
A doula is highly recommended if you want to succeed at having a natural birth. Although many women have succeeded having a natural birth without a doula, a doula can make things much easier. Doulas are trained professionals that you meet with before your birth to discuss what you want from your birth. You develop a special relationship with your doula and they will learn and know how to comfort you during the most intense times of your labor.
Whether this is your first birth or your fourth birth, you can expect false alarms. Each pregnancy and labor are different. There is no exact answer to when and where labor will begin. If you have any signs of labor before 36 weeks, make sure you contact your provider.