The liminal space of early labor is a special time. The mother and her partner (and all of the people who love them) are standing between the Life Before and The Event That Gets Us To The Other Side. It can be beautiful, exhilarating, anxious, tedious, exciting and torturous.
“Is this it?”
“WHEN will this pick up?”
“Oh, THAT'S a contraction? AND IT'S GOING TO GET WORSE?”
Early labor can make you nutty with this swirl of emotions. Watching the clock and timing contractions often make women impatient, which can mean heading to the hospital before labor has truly kicked in. But here are a few tasks to focus on and help you cope until #shitisreal.
1) Take care of Logistics.
Hopefully you've already packed your bag for Game Day. But there are a few things that can't be packed away until go time. It's time to finalize! Things like: Phone chargers, electronics, hospital registration papers, , snacks, tooth brushes, etc.
You can make a short list ahead of time of what will need to be added. Stick this list in the bag so that you can gather the items quickly, or so your partner and birth support people can gather them for you in a pinch. (Or…hey, hey, hey! Get access to the “Early Labor Plan” I've written up just for you.)
Do you have an animal that needs care while you're at the hospital? Get that in order. Will you need childcare for your older child(ren)? Take out the trash so that you don't come home to smells and flies. Let the neighbors know that a) they might hear some early labor noise and b) to keep an eye on your place while you're gone. Does the car have fuel?
If labor is beginning at night and you're planning to rest (great idea. See #4-7.), then set a timer for 30 minutes. Get all of your logistics taken care of, then head to bed. Check off your to-do boxes so that you can rest, knowing you have the details covered.
2) Notify the important people.
If it truly looks like labor is beginning, then it's time to alert the troops. Your doctor or midwife will likely give you a hand-out (or at least verbal instructions) about when to call them. Have these phone numbers entered into your phone and your partner's phone. You can also post them on the refrigerator.
If you've hired a doula, they often want to know early in the process that things are percolating. Doulas need to arrange their lives to be ready when you need support. Your doula should also talk about communication expectations at a prenatal visit. If you aren't sure, ask!
Some of my clients will compose their “Out of Office Email” ahead of time. Then when labor begins, they just activate it. Then they can relax that work is taken care of.
Finally, think ahead of time about who you would like to tell that you are entering labor-land. Only you know your family and friend dynamics and situation well enough to make this choice. It's best to alert people who will respect that labor takes time, who will not blow up your phone every half hour and who will not add strife to your day. I have had some clients tell one person who was in charge of notifying all other pertinent parties. All notified people understood that they were not to message the laboring couple. (Or face the wrath of a brand new mama-bear, Betch.)
3) Try to eat
Many hospitals ask the mother to limit her food-intake once she has checked in. (This is a great question to ask at a prenatal visit with your doctor or midwife, by the way. This policy does vary by region, hospital protocol and circumstance.) Often mothers lose their desire to eat when active labor kicks in, anyway.
So! Early labor is a fantastic time to get some calories in.
Planning mentally for the long haul, choose something mild and comforting. Some carbs, some fats, some protein. Because a lot of women do get nauseous or even vomit during the intense parts of labor, choose food you don't mind seeing again. (I just grossed myself out.)
Eat. Rest. Pretend you're a fancy mermaid on the BIGGEST BED I'VE EVER SEEN.
4) Try to rest
Force yourself to rest – especially if labor begins at night (80% of them do), but even if your labor begins during the day. The average first time mother labors for up 24 hours. Front-loading that rest while you still can is HUGE. Nothing can zap your reserves and coping like exhaustion. Even resting between the contractions, if possible, can conserve energy for active labor.
It's also really important for the partner to rest during early labor, as well. As much as possible, allow him/her to sleep. If mother is choosing an epidural or not, partners often have a difficult time getting rest in a hospital. The chair/couch is usually uncomfortable.
Resting also means staying in a darkened room. That hormone Oxytocin (that causes labor contractions) partners with the hormone Melatonin (which is emitted when you are in a darkened room, especially if you're lying down.). So a dark, quiet room can actually make your labor more efficient.
5) Be in denial.
I often see women choose this tactic, and I marvel at how well it works. They will minimize or downplay their symptoms. Having some contractions? Oh, they're light and will probably go away. Have a little bloody show? Hmm, labor could still be a couple days off.
This is a great mental game to keep the antsy, anxious hyper-vigilance at bay. Start to tell yourself even now that labor will probably be long and that you'll probably go past your due-date. Then you're pleasantly surprised for anything faster/sooner!
And truly, a lot of labors DO slow down or go away for a day or two. Start from the assumption that this will be your case. Then you are less likely to be frustrated or demoralized if it does so. So ignore it! Pretend it's not happening! Convince yourself that the baby is coming NEXT week.
(Caveat: this works well for a first-time mom. If a second timer employs this method, she might have her baby in the yard. Being in denial also does not mean being unsafe. It's still important to call your Care Provider and talk things through with them. As always, remember I'm not a medical professional.)
So much distraction. So much denial. I bet they're watching “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.
A watched labor never boils. Or something.
Sitting there, timing your contractions. Sitting there with your partner and overanalyzing the contraction pattern. Calling your doula over so she can stare at you. This isn't so conducive to progress.
Labor is usually very shy in the beginning. The feeling of being observed slows Oxytocin production. It can also make the mother feel like a show pony. So plan for some ways to be distracted.
If sleep isn't possible, try a restive activity. Maybe set aside a couple movies just to watch during early labor. As a doula, if I arrive at a labor before it seems hot and heavy, I'll often suggest that we turn the TV on. It keeps the labor from being the focal point until it shifts into being the focal point.
Some clients will plan for an early labor activity like baking cookies to bring to the staff at the hospital. Or a couple clients have baked birthday cakes through early labor. Or a meal to freeze. You can plan now for one or two activities that will keep you distracted from the labor.
And when the cookies begin to burn, that's a great sign that early labor is moving into the more active phase. When the mother can't be distracted any longer from her contractions but has to focus and cope with them, we have some clear evidence of progress!
7) Shut it down.
This goes along with #4, #5 and #6, but the motivation varies slightly. Sometimes early labor peters out. Sometimes early labor lasts more than 24 hours. When you are first experiencing contractions and/or bloody show, let's see if we can make this labor show its face.
By resting, taking a bath, having some warm tea, getting to bed, you are doing all you can to make the uterus relax. If a warm bath and drink space the contractions out or make them stop, then you can rest and be reassured that it wasn't the real deal. If a warm bath and some sleep only buy you a few hours of rest before the intensity increases, then you have managed to front-load your rest!
It is nearly predictable: so often a client will call me at 9 or 10pm with some light contractions. Her provider will have her take a bath, have a glass of water or sometimes even a glass of wine. She will settle into bed. If it's the real deal, I'll get a second call at about 3am that the contractions are stronger, closer together and needing some help-can-you-come-over-now-I-need-you-please.
However, if she does all of those steps and my phone is quiet all night, then her labor will choose a different day. (There are always exceptions to every trend. I make no promises.) You can't shut down real labor. And there's no point losing sleep over false labor.
Let's imagine you're 41 weeks pregnant. So done. You can't even.
And then you start to feel contractions at 8pm. What emotions do you think you're experiencing?
Yes, that. Excited, anxious, curious, nervous, exhilarated, panicked!
It's easy for me to suggest you take a nap, be in denial and find some distraction. I'm sitting over here, very not pregnant. But I remember. It was a near impossibility to quiet my racing mind. I remember Googling “bloody show” at 10pm, calling my mom, calling my doula, etc. Eventually, though, I was sobered when I remembered the hard work ahead of me.
So make a plan now. And acknowledge that these tasks are a great idea in theory, but the reality is they will take some conscious choices. I've provided an “Early Labor Plan” worksheet to remind you of these ideas and to formulate your own plan now. Click through for access to this free resource!