Have you thought about what you’re going to do in early labor? A friend of mine who is a midwife suggests baking cookies in early labor. I think this is excellent advice. First of all, then there will be cookies. But also, having a fun activity will help you pass the time in early labor. My friend the midwife tells her families to call her when they start burning the cookies. That’s because while early labor is a time of distraction, when you can usually continue with your normal activities during contractions, active labor is a time of concentration, when you may well forget the cookies in the oven.
During early labor try to follow your normal routine, alternate rest with activity, and keep eating and drinking. As long as you are at least thirty-seven weeks along (three weeks before your due date) it’s best to ignore mild contractions for as long as possible. Of course, if you are not yet term, you would want to call your midwife or OB if you suspect labor. It is often not obvious when early labor begins, but as the contractions keep coming, and get longer, stronger, and closer together, you will be increasingly confident that labor has started. As long as you are term, you’ll do the same things if you’re in pre-labor or early labor.
When you talk to women about their labors, you may notice that many seem to emphasize either how long or how short their labors were. Part of how you get in the short labor club is by ignoring the early contractions. If it’s night time, try to get back to sleep. Even if each contraction wakes you up, you may have ten to twenty minutes between contractions when you can drift back to sleep. No one ever got to pushing and regretted sleeping too much in early labor! While I used to dream when I was pregnant that I had slept through the birth and my baby was next to me in the bed, you can’t actually sleep through active labor. When your contractions require your attention, you’ll know. If you find you can’t get back to sleep, try getting up, going to the bathroom, having a snack, and then lying down some place else, like the couch or a guest bed, and trying again. Even if you can’t sleep there is benefit in resting.
During the day you could continue with your normal activities, take a walk or a nap, or watch a movie. It’s important not to drive yourself in early labor, since you don’t know when the contractions will get more intense. It’s also important to regularly empty your bladder, since your baby and your full bladder can compete for space. Most activities that you do to relax after a stressful day are available to you in labor; you can walk, take a bath or shower, cook, eat, snuggle with your partner or your pet, listen to music, do deep breathing, have a massage, watch tv, nap, etc.
Labor is driven by the hormone oxytocin, which both you and your baby secrete in spurts in your brains. When you release oxytocin, you also both release endorphins, which help with pain. Since the hormones come together, as the contractions get longer and stronger and closer together over time, you will also have natural help to deal with them. So try to relax and experience what early labor is about for you. You are creating the beginnings of what will soon be your unique birth story.
Julie Brill, CCCE, CLD is the author of the doula anthology Round the Circle: Doulas Share Their Experiences. She has taught thousands of childbirth students over the last twenty-four years and is currently offering independent childbirth classes and workshops for childbirth educators and labor doulas.