Coping At All Stages - Early Labor

"For my first I was set for an induction at 7am. I woke at 2:30am with period like cramps. I didn't know what labor would feel like, my doctor didn't give me any information and I didn't know about childbirth classes. Around 4am, I figured out I was having mild contractions. We went in at 7am and I told my doctor this. I still got Pitocin, though, and he broke my water and away we went. They were fast, intense and back to back. 

For my second, I woke at 3:30am to go to the bathroom, when I sat up I felt a trickle. I went to the bathroom and there was more fluid leaking. I was so excited. I was having mild contractions. 

For my third, I woke at 12:15am. As I opened my eyes I couldn't move because I was having such an intense contraction my whole body felt paralyzed..."~ Allison

"I woke to a pop and a gush - so there was no mistaking that I was going to be in labor - although, from what I hear, only about 10% of women's labors start with the water breaking. When my contractions started about 30 minutes later, I was in the shower rinsing off and my husband was putting the laundry in the washer. They started out subtlety, like a nearly continuous menstrual cramp. It was all under my belly button and all dull and achy. Within a few hours, the continuous dull menstrual cramp had spaced out to full belly hugs that wrapped around from the sides, the top, and the bottom, lots of water balloon-like pressure the full size of my uterus; like this giant water balloon being blown up inside, at the same time that this flat wide band wrapped around the water balloon and tried to pop it from pressure alone. The dull menstrual cramp of my lower belly was still there. As the day went on, the menstrual cramps got bigger, and the pressure got stronger...." ~ Amili

"I first considered that I might be in labor when I started experiencing crampy-like contractions at regular 6-7 minute intervals...." ~ Chelsea

"My contractions were confusing - I think everyone else knew I was in labor before I did. I woke up about 4am to a backache. It would start as a pulling on my lower back that would intensify, last for awhile, then go away. I woke repeatedly in the night to this sensation and I thought it was just a muscle strain. After I got up, my husband asked how I slept and I told him. He noticed I said 'about every 15 minutes I woke with a nagging backache; so no, I slept like crap'. He kept that observation to himself, which I'm happy for. The backache waves got closer and closer - until about every 7 minutes apart, before he said 'Do you think this is labor'? Until then I had no idea. I thought I needed a massage or a chiropractor. Luckily I had a chiro appointment for that morning..." ~ Liv

"With my first birth, I woke up to brief light cramps every 10-15 minutes. It took 24 hours for them to meet the "every 5 minutes" criteria my OB had given me, and even then they were still light. 

With my second,  I was induced gently. Acupressure and nipple stimulation worked to bring a light contraction pattern to around 7 minutes apart. 

With my third birth, I was in a meeting at work and I started having period cramps. They were probably every 7-10 minutes at first and lasted that way until dinner..." ~ Terri

"With my first pregnancy, I never had cramps or Braxton Hicks. I felt my insides twist up all of tha sudden. Then ten minutes, again. I knew right away. For my second, I'd been feeling crampy since the morning. I didn't know if it was worthy of mention since I'd been crampy for a month. My mom picked up my three year old for her usual weekly babysitting gig. As soon as he was gone the cramps became what I'd most certainly call contractions. Purposeful, dynamic, big, moving. I felt my uterus lifting up like a skirt with each one. I felt relaxed knowing this was probably "it", and suddenly very feminine too..." ~ Holly

"I had a midwife appointment at my house at 38 weeks and I asked her to check my cervix. This was around 4pm. We went out to dinner and called it an early night; going to bed at 9:30. I was glad because I woke at midnight. I had contractions that felt like cervical tickles. They would come for about 20 second every 3 minutes. I woke my husband after a few hours of this. At that time I got up to go to the bathroom (diarrhea) and saw I had pink discharge and my mucous plug in my panties. I called my midwife because they were so close so soon. She said to wait until they felt more intense OR got longer OR they spaced out to match the intensity and length. I called my doula hoping she'd say it was going to be a fast birth. She said 'it might be or it could be [midwife] touching your cervix' and then told me the same thing my midwife did. So I put on a pad and went back to bed. I woke intermittently, never fully rousing, and slept for a good part of the night." ~ Trinity

"I started having mild cramps after a doctors appointment. He said to go on a walk. My doula mentioned eating dinner and heading home to settle in early for the night. I went on the walk. We went to dinner, then I walked more. I didn't want the cramps to stop and they only stopped or spaced out when I stopped moving. So I kept moving. I checked in with my doula and said they were getting stronger, but were still short and only picked up in frequency when I walked. She again suggested I go to sleep. I really didn't want them to stop though, so I kept walking. About midnight I was thoroughly exhausted and had to go to bed. So I got a shower and we tucked in for the night. I woke up to nothing the next day. That evening, we repeated the events of the prior evening and night. Again, I tuckered myself out and went to bed only to wake up to nothing. The third night, I didn't go walking, but instead just hung out at home and went to bed early. Around 2am I woke to a different contraction. I can't explain it but it was more... encompassing...." ~ Kelly

Early labor is a time when your body is working, but you usually don't need to actively adjust your activities to accommodate the sensations. A textbook early labor would last around 10 hours and start with contractions far apart (10 minutes or further apart), lasting for a short time (30-45 seconds each), and be crampy, light, and not very intense. Over time, these contractions would get CLOSER, LONGER, and STRONGER (all three). 

But we all know that our  bodies didn't read the medical textbooks and every body has a mind of it's own, so early labor can last a few hours (or less) or a few days. Some women have labors that skip early entirely, and others have early labor patterns that don't follow the 'early labor patterns'. 

Sometimes early labor contractions will start out close together, but the intensity (strength) isn't there and the duration (how long they're lasting) isn't there. In those cases, your birth team would be looking for the strength and duration to pick up to match the spacing...  or for the frequency to space out to match the other two. This pattern is very common when your cervix is checked or stretched/swept at a prenatal appointment and you have contractions afterward. 

Sometimes early labor contractions are far apart, but the intensity is quite strong. This can sometimes be the result of baby being in a different position than on your left side or lined up with your belly button. If this is the case, call your doula or midwife to help you get some ideas for how to get the intensity to match the frequency and duration. 

Some Pro Tips from birth workers who have been around the block a few times with laboring mamas: 
  • Make sure you're taken care of - sometimes practice labor, UTIs, bladder infections, and dehydration can look like early labor. Make sure you're well hydrated, if you were walking, try lying down (and vice versa), and make sure it doesn't hurt or burn to pee. If you've been spending a lot of time doing physical activities and that's what started everything, try getting on all fours and swaying your belly back and forth to make sure baby isn't playing with the braxton hicks button.
  • Don't pay attention too soon - if you think you're in labor, let your team know, but then try to ignore the sensations and do what you would normally do during that time of day or night. If you'd normally be sleeping - SLEEP. You never know how long your labor will be and there will come a time you will probably want to sleep and can't. If you had plans for lunch, keep them - it's probably a good distraction, there will come a time when your labor won't let you be distracted from the work your body is doing. 
  • Don't get hung up on timing contractions - try timing them in sets of 3-5 contractions, update your birth team, then put the app (or paper and pencil) away. When your labor sensations change (more intense, markedly closer, or markedly longer) time another set and send them to your birth team. 
  • Don't try to walk your baby out during early labor - it rarely works and usually only serves to exhaust mama. Then when she really wants to sit or lie down, active labor kicks in and she can't sit or lie down. Walking your baby out is best reserved for active labor. 
  • Eat and Drink - again, you have no way of knowing how long it will take. Eat when you're hungry or during your regular meal times. Drink water often. Pee often. 
  • Greet labor with patience - you have been waiting for this moment for around 9 months. Remember it might be fast, but will probably take time and patience. Clocks have no place in the labor room and the more you can disconnect from worrying about how long it is taking or going to take, the more seamlessly it will evolve. 
  • Change things when labor changes - when your labor says 'no more side lying, I don't like that' listen to your body. If you suddenly feel like you need to get rinsed off, take a shower. 
This is an overview of early labor.. next up is active labor, the time when we need to actively participate in the process. 

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