August 26, 2020
Conference presenter and midwife Ina May Gaskin offers advice for women in early labor. “Tell her to make an apple cake. Lean on the counter if necessary. She’ll stay busy and her house will smell good.”
This may sound aggravatingly simple, but the sentiment is clear: Relax, this might take a while.
When it becomes clear that labor is actually starting, it’s hard to resist the urge to pack up your bags and rush right in to the hospital. Some women feel excited, some women feel anxious, but it’s a nearly universal response to want to get this show on the road! Slow down, take a breath, this is early labor.
What Is Early Labor?
Early labor can be the trickiest—and longest—phase of labor. It can take several hours for contractions to come regularly and with enough intensity to start making changes to the cervix.
While early labor used to be defined as the time when the cervix dilates from 0 to 3 centimeters, new guidelines suggest that early labor really extends all the way to 6 centimeters. This is a recognition that a significant amount of dilation happens before labor intensifies and becomes more rhythmic. It’s also a reminder that, for most women, the early work of labor can and should be done at home.
The Benefits of Staying at Home
Staying at home ensures an uninterrupted stretch of time when labor can unfold naturally and in a relaxed way. All evidence indicates that when a woman feels safe, unrushed and supported, labor will usually progress on its own.
Trusting and listening to your body, having the freedom to move and stay active (or rest, if that’s what your body is telling you to do), keeping a sense of humor, and staying well-nourished and hydrated are all important during early labor.
No matter how hard we try to make the hospital welcoming and comfortable, coming into a new environment with unfamiliar people, bright lights and strange noises can disrupt early labor progress.
Have a Plan
If staying at home doesn’t feel instinctive, it’s helpful to have a plan ahead of time. Allow gravity to do some of the work for you by going for a walk or taking a long shower. Rhythmic movement helps the baby descend, too, so dance. Connect with friends or enjoy time with your partner to stay mentally relaxed. Maybe have the ingredients for an apple cake on hand, just in case.
Thinking of early labor as a luxurious time, the final hours to be self-indulgent before baby comes, also wards off feelings of anxiety or dismay if labor is progressing slowly.
As always, being in good communication with your care provider will also help you feel more relaxed. Consider having a conversation about early labor at one of your regularly scheduled appointments to discuss your plans and preferences so that when the time comes, you can feel confident and supported. And always follow your provider’s instructions about when to come in to the hospital.
Most of all, allow for the possibility that early labor can be a thoroughly pleasant step in the process of meeting your baby.
*Note: “Early labor” should not be confused with “pre-term labor.” If you are experiencing signs of labor before 38 weeks of pregnancy, call your provider for more information.