Welcome to part three of our blog series entitled What I Wish I Knew. This series explores various topics related to pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and parenting that parents wish they would have known more about before they experienced them. You can find part one here and part two here. Our first two installments of this series addressed common postpartum issues, but today we’ll be addressing birth, more specifically early labor. When we asked our doula clients and social media followers about what they wished they would have known more about before going through labor, many parents expressed their uncertainty in knowing how to identify early labor signs, as well as what they should do when it begins.
What is Early Labor?
Early labor is the first stage in the labor process, during which your cervix begins changing. It is also sometimes referred to as pre-labor, or the latent phase. During pregnancy, a normal cervix is firm, closed, long, and pointing toward your back (posterior). In early labor, the cervix begins to soften (ripen), open (dilate), thin (efface), and move forward toward the birth canal. This begins to occur through a complex series of chemical and hormonal changes in the body. Early labor is defined as the period of time that your cervix is between 0-3 cm dilated. It is generally the longest and least physically demanding stage of labor.
How Do I Know if I’m in Early Labor?
Oftentimes, early labor is so mild that you may not even notice it. Other times, you may experience some of the following symptoms:
• Menstrual-like cramps
• Low back ache
• Increased pressure in pelvis or vagina
• Fluid leakage from vagina
• Inconsistent contractions or contractions 10 or more minutes apart
• Increased vaginal discharge
• Bloody show
• Loss of mucous plug
• Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
If you think your water has broken, notice more bleeding than light spotting, experience severe pain, or a decrease in fetal movement, be sure to contact your healthcare provider.
What Should I Do in Early Labor?
Birth is often likened to a marathon. In a marathon, you want to avoid exerting all of your energy at the very beginning, so you will have the stamina to make it through until the end. The same is true for birth. If your mind and body become too fatigued early on, labor may become more difficult than necessary. So if birth is a marathon, rather than thinking of early labor as the beginning of the race, it may be helpful to think of early labor as the day or two leading up to the race. You will want to hydrate, eat well, rest as much as possible, and go about your life as usual. Don’t get caught up in the idea that you have to do anything to get active labor to begin. The time for that may come later on, but this is likely the only stage of labor that you’ll have the opportunity to rest comfortably through, so be sure to take advantage of that as much as possible. Although the thought of finally being done with the discomforts of late pregnancy and meeting your baby may be exciting, try to avoid doing too much physical activity which could exhaust you before the more strenuous work needs to be done.
In a high-risk or special circumstance pregnancy, you will want to discuss with your provider during your pregnancy what you should do in early labor. Some conditions may necessitate monitoring or intervention.
Doulas and Early Labor
If you have hired a birth doula, it may be a good idea to touch base with them during early labor. Although you likely will not need them to come to you right away, your doula can still be of importance during this time. They can help you differentiate between early and active labor, offer support and encouragement, and answer any questions for you. Communicating with your doula also allows them to begin to prepare themselves to be with you in a timely manner when you request them further along in labor.