Early Labor: Please Listen to Your Midwife!
You have probably read about the way labor normally starts, at least most of the time. Normally you notice that the painless Braxton-Hicks contractions you’ve been experiencing in the last few weeks of pregnancy have begun to be accompanied by a sensation similar to menstrual cramps, centered in your lower abdomen, back or both. These early contractions are usually 20 to 30 seconds long and start out feeling only mildly uncomfortable. If you start timing them, they may start out at around 20-25 minutes apart, maybe more, maybe less. Sometimes they start and then go away completely (this is what they refer to as prodromal labor); but most of the time once they start they never stop until baby is born. Approximately 15% of birthing people will experience their membranes rupturing prior to the beginning of labor. Sometimes labor starts right away after this occurs, but not always. It can take 12 to 24 hours before contractions begin, and if water has broken prematurely, a medical induction may be required.
If this is your first baby and you are pretty sure you’ve begun early labor based on this description, now is the time that you take the advice of your midwife, doula or other care provider. Do you remember what they told you to do all those weeks ago when labor seemed like such a far way off? They probably told you something to the effect of, “If you think you’re in early labor and it’s nighttime, you should go to bed and do your best to sleep. If it’s in the morning and you’ve just woken up then you should take it easy, eat a good meal, and distract yourself with activities that give you joy, for example cooking, watching your favorite rom-com or reading a book, with an emphasis on resting as much as possible.” There’s a reason we as birth professionals dispense this age-old advice early and often: we want you to listen to us!
We get it. You’re excited. You’re nervous. You feel like a kid on Christmas Eve trying to fall asleep when all you can think about is opening up your presents the next morning. We appreciate that it may be difficult to contain your eager anticipation, but this prescription for navigating early labor is grounded in good science. Your body is about to embark upon an incredible feat and it needs to be prepared for it. The greatest gift you can give yourself when beginning labor is the gift of rest, relaxation, nutrition/hydration and oxytocin generation.
What is oxytocin, you may ask? It’s the hormone that’s critical for getting the body into labor and keeping it there; not coincidentally it’s the same hormone that’s produced in lovemaking and with orgasm, so it’s commonly known as the love hormone. Finding things to do that produce joy and contentment are labor-inducing activities, so to speak. Not surprisingly, getting amorous with your partner is another great way to produce oxytocin. Cuddling up in bed and enjoying the last moments together alone before baby arrives can be a lovely way to rest, relax and prepare for the main event.
Honoring your body by providing it rest, calm and comfort is the perfect way to get labor established. Being chill has a dual benefit: it produces oxytocin and, if you do manage to sleep, it can cut hours off of what you’re counting as “labor” since in effect you’re sleeping through it. Just like an elite athlete, you need to enter your event in peak condition. Taking the advice of your care providers by resting, relaxing, eating a nourishing meal and finding joy-filled distractions accomplishes this. So please listen to your doula/midwife/OB. Go to bed!
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