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What to Do During Early Labor: A Guide to Patience, Trust and Little Bit of Midwife Dust

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

If there is any one mistake we try to prevent for first time moms planning a natural birth at home, it is the accidental over-activity during the first phase of labor. It is so common for a couple to get so overjoyed with the labor process finally beginning that they hype themselves into overdrive too early and begin to putter out just as the "real" work of labor is actually beginning. Rookie mistake, you can call it, but it's a very easy one to make without some extra wisdom and guidance.

Jump to the list below to get right to our easy references:

This scenario plays out all too easily. Picture it with us. You are diligent to follow your midwives advice to have everything ready for baby at 37 weeks in pregnancy. Your due date comes and goes, and although cognitively you know it's normal, you were secretly hoping you'd be the one to go early. You are spending 7-10 days after your due date going back and forth between trusting your body and wondering if you are going to be the first women ever to actually stay pregnant forever. You wait, you cry, you scream at the daily well-meaning "any baby yet?" texts and are vigilant for any sign of labor beginning.

And then, HARK! Was that last Braxton Hick a little stronger than usual? Was that a bit of pink on your toilet paper? Was your bowel movement looser than normal? Yes, these are wave-like surges you realize- and that's the 5th one you have felt in an hour. This must be it, finally your day has come! You call your midwife and she agrees, this may be the very beginning of your true labor. And you find yourself at a fork in the road. Will you let your excitement get away from you and jump into full labor mode yet? Or will you take the advice of your loving care provider and all the many wise women who have traversed this path before you? You want to be the latter, we know this, you just need some encouragement to light the path a bit.

What is "Early" Labor, Anyway?
  • Known as the "wait and see" phase, contractions may intensify and progress or dwindle down and start again another day

  • Contractions are usually 5 or more minutes apart lasting less than 60 seconds

  • Your water may have broken but no contractions have begun

  • You can walk and talk easily through contractions

  • Contraction frequency may be inconsistent or start and stop

  • Is normal and fairly common for this phase to last 12-24 hours or more (for the first time mom)

The Don'ts of Early Labor:
  1. Don't get out of bed if it's nighttime: it may seem like it's impossible to sleep and rest, but it's not! Your end-of-labor self will look back on your beginning-of-labor self and say, "you actually could have been sleeping THEN- now it truly is impossible." So do your end-of-labor self a solid and work everything in your power to get back to sleep, or at least doze in-between your surges.

  2. Don't wake up your partner if it's nighttime: you know he will be SO excited with you and for you and it feels almost wrong to keep this little secret, but he needs sleep as badly as you do.

  3. Don't start timing contractions: you are paying way too much attention to your labor if you are timing contractions already and we guarantee your labor will feel like it's a thousands hours long if you do this. You can notice how far apart they are for a few in a row just to get a gage on the timing and progress, but then you should stop and distract yourself with another activity.

  4. Don't cancel all your plans and stay home: waiting around for your labor to change will also make it feel unnecessarily long. Keep doing life until your labor takes all your concentration.

  5. Don't group text or post on social media: unless you want to have everyone checking in on you asking why it is taking so long, only tell the essential birth team members that you think your labor has begun. You may not even feel like announcing the birth right after your baby is born, so it is usually best not to let everyone know you are in labor.

The Do's of Early Labor:
  1. Sleep if it is nighttime. Nap if it is daytime: you are going to want as much energy stored up in your labor cup as possible once the big work of active labor shifts into view. A good balance of activity and rest is needed during early labor.

  2. Stretch, walk, do hip circles on the ball, and spend time outdoors: you want to keep your mind and body active and distracted, but you can support the start of labor well with exercises that open, gently shift and balance you physically.

  3. Eat full and nourishing meals: fuel up with calories that can power you through the work of labor. Look at every meal as if it's the last full one you may get before your appetite dwindles. Nausea (and even vomiting) are common in labor and you may struggle to eat for energy later. Choose whole foods that are easy to digest and emphasize protein and complex carbs. Once full meals are not possible, make sure you are snacking every 2 hours, or taking small bites of food every few contractions.

  4. Hydrate: keep hydration at a level that causes urination every 30-60 minutes. Keep a bottle or cup with a straw filled with clear fluids and with you wherever you go. Dehydration can sap energy and make contractions more painful. Give yourself some electrolyte boosts with salt, lemon and honey.

  5. Get a massage and visit your chiropractor or acupuncturist: find out ahead of time who on your prenatal team is willing to see you on short notice in labor. This is the perfect time to get one more treatment to relax, align and support a straightforward labor and birth.

  6. Review your birth affirmations: remind yourself what you want and believe to be true about birth and be willing to speak those things over yourself while you embrace the waiting and unknown. Scoop up our Free Printable Birth and Postpartum Affirmations HERE and get a jumpstart on learning one of our favorite natural birth mindset tools.

How Will You Know When You are in Active Labor (aka early labor is over) ?
  • Contractions are usually less than 5 minutes apart lasting 60 seconds or more

  • You can walk and talk easily in between contractions but are starting to need to concentrate and focus during a contraction

  • Contraction frequency is usually forming a predictable pattern

  • It's harder to be distracted and you have a strong sense of wanting to get settled into your birthing space

Now, labor will look different for every women. Each birth for the same mother will be different as well. We have seen first labor that take 3-4 days before the baby is born and first labors that take only 6 hours before the baby is born. We always share with our clients that it is easier to plan for the average 24 hours and adjust to it being shorter, than to plan for it being shorter and have to adjust expectations in the opposite direction. Check out this previous post about How to Cope With a Long Labor HERE.

Thankfully, you only have to do this first labor once. Your body takes some liberties in slowly opening for the first time. Although the first labor can be particularly long and hard, as midwives, we trust the physiological process and aim to support it unfolding naturally as best we can. Birthing couples can do their part to support the process by taking diligent care during the early phase.

One practical way to get some of your ideas and plans organized and communicated is to utilize our Birth Visualization Worksheet. Grab your own copy with this instant downloadable guide HERE.

Although we are licensed midwives by profession, we are not YOUR midwives. All content and information on this website is for informational and educational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Although we strive to provide accurate general information, the information presented here is not a substitute for any kind of professional advice. For more information, click here.

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