early labour

Early Labour

When we are pregnant, we hear other people’s birth stories. Sometimes this is a good thing, but often we hear the horror stories. You may hear about your friend, or your friend’s friend, or the woman down the street was in labour for 47 hours and had a terrible time of it. They will also possibly tell you how they were sent home from the hospital (once or maybe twice), and perhaps even told they weren’t in labour yet.

For women who are in early labour, this can be hard to hear. For first time mothers especially, who do not know the marathon ahead of them, hearing that they have a long way to go can be very disheartening (11).

Whether you have a 30-minute labour, or it seems to go for days, most women will have a latent phase. Whether women feel it or not, if they are scared or if they think it’s normal will determine how they perceive this time.

The process of labour must begin somewhere. For some women, the time they start contracting to established labour can be days, particularly if they are contracting on and off or it is their first baby.

We cannot tell how it will be for you, for any woman, or each different pregnancy. All we can do is provide education, reassurance and tactics for coping with early labour.

Signs of labour

Signs of labour can happen before you start contracting. It can be frustrating (and sometimes distressing) waiting for your contractions to become regular and co-ordinated. Sometimes you will think that it’s finally getting going, only to have them drop off for a while. You may go to the hospital, and find you are one or two centimetres dilated. If this is the case, the midwife will probably recommend you go home.

If this is the case, please be assured that:

  • Just because it’s not time for you to be at the hospital yet, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been doing great work. All the early contractions – big, small, long, short, regular or otherwise have been working on shortening your cervix (which starts about 3-4 cm long). They have also been helping your baby get into position for birth.
  • Home is the best place for most women in early labour. We aren’t sending you home because we don’t believe you, or we don’t care. We are sending you back because that is where women usually feel safest and most comfortable. When a woman feels safe and comfortable, her labour often progresses better.

You can always come back in. If you are worried about your baby, your contractions are strong and regular, or you aren’t coping at home any more please call and let us know. If you think it’s time to come back, your waters break or you have any bleeding down below, pick up the phone and tell us what you are feeling. If we think you need to be in the hospital (or its time for your midwife to come to you) that is what we will recommend; if you think you need to be in hospital you don’t need our permission.

Coping strategies

Try to relax by:

  • taking deep relaxing breaths
  • having a shower
  • having your birth partner give you a gentle massage
  • using an ice pack or hot water bottle on your back if you are uncomfortable
  • walking around
  • sitting on a birth ball and rolling your hips in circles
  • eating a light snack
  • drinking plenty of water

Sex and labour

Rumour has it that sex can start labour. This belief came about because a man’s semen has natural prostaglandins (hormones) in it, which may help to ripen the cervix. Sexual stimulation also releases oxytocin into the woman’s system.

As this hormone is responsible for contractions, it is not unreasonable to assume that a little bit extra won’t hurt. No evidence suggests that either hormone will start labour early, if at all. While sex is safe during pregnancy for most women, there are some circumstances that it is not. Please discuss your situation with your health care provider. Please don’t do this if you know your waters have broken.

Dr Janelle McAlpine (PhD), Clinical Midwife
Photo by nd3000, used under license from Shutterstock.com