The Hidden Phase of Labor Nobody Told You About

Early Active Labor Phase

Rest. Relax. Get some sleep. Sometimes we sound like a broken record when our clients are experiencing early labor, or prodromal labor contractions. In your childbirth classes, you will hear about the Phases and Stages of labor. 

While these are helpful guidelines for starting to talk about what you might experience as your body gets ready to give birth, the truth is, labor is often not as straight-forward as we like to make it seem.

What Will Labor Be Like For Me?

Some women will experience mild to moderately intense contractions for days, or even weeks, leading up to the big day. Other women seem to jump straight from nothing to full-blown hard labor, with no warm-up. In the middle there are the women that will follow a pretty standard pattern. All of this is normal! It is helpful to think about how you will prepare and cope in any scenario.

What can be difficult, though, is when what you thought labor might be like doesn't line up exactly with what labor really is like for you. Sometimes you are working hard through contractions, you are checked, and it suddenly seems like you haven't made as much progress as you hoped. 

The Getting Into Active Labor Phase

I want to tell you something. Labor is hard, and it is unpredictable. Progress can happen excruciatingly slow, and then suddenly a huge leap is made. If you are 4cm, and it feels like you have already been hit by a mack truck, it is ok. Let's not discount how hard the work can be just to get into active labor in the first place!

We often get the impression that early labor, up until somewhere between 4-6cm, will be easy. You are told to rest, relax, and ignore contractions. This is great advice!

Sometimes, though, the work of early labor is not as easy to ignore as expected. In fact, for some women, this phase can be even longer and harder than the rest of labor! The early, getting into active, phase of labor can take time, endurance, and patience.  It can feel intense, painful, and come with a variety of emotions.

Progress Isn't Just a Number

Remember that dilation is just one of many, many measures of labor progress. Cervical dilation can happen over the course of minutes (I've seen women go from 7cm to crowning in 15 minutes flat), or months (I've also seen women walk around 4cm for 6 weeks at the end of pregnancy!) If you are experiencing a longer, harder early phase, other changes are happening, such as:

  • The position of your baby.
  • The ripening and position of your cervix.
  • The widening of your pelvis.
  • So much more that we haven't even thought to measure yet.

How to Cope with a Longer, Harder Early Labor

  1. Hire a labor doula. She will be there to give you advice, encouragement, and a knowledgeable listening ear. She is trained in techniques to help you work through this, and out to the other side!
  2. Continue to rest and relax as much as possible between contractions, even if you can't do it during them. This is a great opportunity for partners to practice hands on massage or relaxation techniques you may have learned. Try some different positions to see if they help to relieve the pain and tension you are experiencing. Sleep is essential, and even if you just can't sleep, let your muscles and body relax and conserve energy as much as possible. We promise, you can do this.
  3. Continue to eat and drink. Your body needs fuel to keep doing this hard work. A sprint is not better or easier than a marathon, but they both have different strategies, techniques, and obstacles to push through. You need to carefully pace yourself!
  4. Repeat after me: "I am doing this. I have made it this far. I have faith that my body and my baby know what they are doing." It can be hard to ignore the numbers when you have a cervical check, but remember, that is just one piece of information. Don't let it distract or discourage you from all of the hard work and progress you HAVE made!

What About You?

Have you experienced a harder early labor phase in the past? What did you find helpful in coping? Do you have a story to share? We would love to hear about it!