Early labor typically lasts 5-12 hours, and it serves to open your cervix to 4 centimeters and thin it out so that your cervix goes from looking like a thick-walled cylinder to a thin cup. The best things you can do for yourself during early labor are to eat a little and rest, preferably on your left side. You may also want to slowly walk about the house, or even in your neighborhood, to help your labor progress and keep things--that is, your baby--moving in the right direction.
As your contractions intensify, you may need some additional support or distractions. This early stage of labor is the longest, and it can start to drag on if you're uncomfortable. You're most likely still at home at this stage, but you can set the mood for a peaceful labor and delivery by using some of the same support techniques you'll rely on once you're at the birth center or hospital. In fact, with most labors, you can remain at home until you're in active labor.
- Start labor on the right foot by setting a peaceful mood. Dim the lights and surround yourself with things you love: favorite photographs, your favorite music, scented candles, audio books.
- If you don't have a doula or labor coach other than your partner, invite a trusted family member or friend to help you through these hours of early labor. Ideally this will be a woman who has had children herself, but the most important thing is that this person be someone you're completely comfortable with. This will offer you support and let your partner take breaks before the real excitement kicks in.
- Even if you're not walking, stay upright during contractions. Lean on your partner, your friend, a chair, or the arm of the couch. Better yet, fold a couple of towels and put them on the kitchen counter or a high table so that you can lean forward and rest your arms on them. You can also use a large exercise ball by kneeling with the ball in front of you and draping yourself over it; rock forward on your knees as your uterus contracts to relieve some of the pain.
- You might think added pressure wouldn't feel good now, but in fact any sort of massage releases those feel-good endorphins and might ease labor pains. Ask your partner or friend to give you a neck rub or foot massage to take your mind off contractions or have him or her press on your tailbone with each contraction. You can also make your own massage tool by stuffing tennis balls into a sport sock and asking your partner or friend to rub it over your back.
- Visualize things that make you happy: holding your baby in your arms, a beach you saw once in Bermuda, your honeymoon picnic in an Italian olive grove.
- Change positions often. Moving around may help your baby slip farther down into your pelvis; if you get tired of walking, try getting on your hands and knees and rocking back and forth.
- Early in labor, warm water can be the most pleasurable way to take your mind off any discomfort because it makes you feel weightless and soothes your aching back. Sit in a Jacuzzi or stand in a shower and aim the water jets or spray at the small of your back. (If your water has broken, get an OK from your midwife or doctor before sitting in a tub.)
- Keep up your fluids. Drinking water, juices, or sports drinks can keep you hydrated and--as an added benefit--keep you moving because the more you drink, the more you'll have to make that walk to the bathroom. If you start feeling nauseated during early labor, sip fluids between contractions or suck on frozen juice bars.
Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.
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