Early labor, which is also known as the first phase of stage 1 of labor, is the time from the very beginning of labor (when contractions start to follow a pattern) up until 6cm of dilation, or "active labor." How do you know it's early labor? Typical early labor signs to look for in your partner include:
- Mild contractions that may come and go before beginning to develop a pattern
- Contractions that make you pause, but usually mild enough to talk through
- Lower backache
- Increased vaginal discharge/mucous, as well as possible "bloody show" (blood tinged mucous)
- Restlessness or "nesting" behaviors
- Nausea or abdominal cramping or diarrhea
- Water breaking - only in 5% of people; sometimes water breaks without contractions
Prior to this point, at sometime during the middle of the third trimester, discuss your plan for early labor. Obviously, all plans are subject to change, especially when it comes to labor and birth, but it helps to know things like when you will call your care provider, when you would like to go into the hospital/birth center, and what kinds of things you would like to do during early labor at home. Early labor is typically the longest phase of all of labor and birth -- ideally, you will create a loose plan with ideas for what to do during early labor. This might include things that help pass the time, like watching a movie or taking a walk, or activities that help with comfort, like taking a bath, resting, or massage.
As the person not in labor, talk to your partner about what kinds of things they might like for comfort or distraction. Everyone is different and reaches for different things when they are in distress, in need of comfort, or working hard to focus. Some couldn't imagine not having the support of their beloved while others prefer solitude. Depending on your partner's preferences (which may very well change as labor progresses), the following tips for support in early labor is a helpful go-to list.
Tips for Supporting Your Partner in Early Labor
Take a good childbirth class - Obviously, this would take place way before labor begins! Attending a childbirth class is, hands-down, the best way to familiarize yourself with the ins-and-outs of labor, which help reduce your fear and confusion when the time actually comes. Childbirth classes prepares you with in-depth information and strategies to use on the big day.
Help time contractions - There are many apps that do this for you (including the Lamaze Pregnancy to Parenting app!). Timing contractions will help you to know whether contractions are getting longer, strong, and closer together - which is the primary sign for labor starting.
Stay calm - Or get really good at faking it. If you are calm, you will provide the calming presence your partner needs to also help stay calm.
Call your care provider/OB/midwife and doula - Let your partner labor on. Offer to call your care provider and doula if you have hired one to describe what's going on.
Eating and drinking - Encourage your partner to eat and drink as they feel the urge. Do the same for you! You're likely at the beginning of a long haul -- it will be important for both of you to keep up your energy.
Be courteous - This is a time to put your own needs and desires second. This means not cooking/eating anything particularly aromatic (no tuna salad or garlic bread, please); keeping the tv or music down low or off; and generally making sure your partner has what they need first.
Suggest activities - Have at-the-ready some ideas for distraction, like a movie, a walk, a puzzle, a date out (that could end early, of course), a massage, visit to friends, etc.
Communicate your availability - If you cannot be home, or must leave for a period of time, keep in close communication with your partner about your availability. If you must be gone, call in back-up support from your doula, a good friend, or a family member.
Provide direct support through contractions - As contractions become more intense, your partner will likely appreciate more direct support, like breathing with her, reminding her to release tension in her face and shoulders, verbal encouragement, and back rub or similar comforting touch during the contraction (if desired -- some will not like this during contractions; be sure to check in and ask!).
Early labor, while it is not the most physically intense part of labor and birth, it can be the most emotionally and mentally taxing, simply because of the time it takes as well as the uncertainty over signs and decisions to make. You can boost your confidence for the early labor period by taking a good childbirth class in your third trimester, as well as by enlisting the help and support of your OB or midwife, and a doula.