Early Labor: The Secret to Speeding up Progress

Updated on February 15, 2019
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Amanda is a Registered Nurse with over 10 years of experience in Obstetrics. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2003.

Early labor is the first phase of labor where you are experiencing contractions, but the cervix is less than 3 to 4 centimeters dilated. During this phase, the contractions are usually irregular or greater than 5 minutes apart and last anywhere from 30-90 seconds. These contractions are stronger than Braxton Hicks, but mild in comparison to the contractions you'll experience during active labor. Contractions might be considered mild if you are still able to talk through them, get into a comfortable position, or are able to distract yourself.

What to Do If You're in Early Labor

Most importantly, stay hydrated. The uterus is a large muscle that needs to contract pretty frequently over several hours, sometimes days, until delivery. Contractions deplete the uterine muscle of water, and the electrolytes needed for energy. Remember... a hydrated uterus functions more efficiently.

EFFICIENCY=PROGRESS=DELIVERY

If it is the middle of the night, rest as much as possible during early labor. You will need your strength during the active phase of labor, where the contractions become more frequent and intense. There are still some techniques you can use to labor most effectively while resting in bed. This will be addressed below.

Mindset

Just like a key factor to successfully completing a marathon is "Mind Over Matter", mindset is just as important in getting through labor. Women often focus, worry and consume themselves with the painful contractions that are to come or on the daunting potential length of labor; that they have a hard time staying in the present moment and just taking one contraction at a time. Remind yourself that each contraction brings the baby closer to being in your arms, and embrace them. Try comfort measures and distraction techniques to help you cope during early labor. Just remember that these strategies are meant to help you tolerate this expected pain and not eliminate it.

As previously mentioned, contractions are usually irregular or greater than 5 minutes apart, thus you have more painless time than painful time. Concentrate on the breaks that you get between contractions, making sure to completely release all of your tension and let go of your anxiety and fears during these reprieves.

During your contractions, it will be a natural instinct to tense your muscles, clench your buttocks, and arch your back. Don't do this! Clenching your buttocks is like closing the door that you want your baby to go through, and arching your back lifts the baby off of the cervix leading to slower progress. This will prolong labor... the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. Remember not to fight your body during this natural, albeit painful process. Instead, do your best to keep your muscles relaxed and prevent yourself from arching your back, thus facilitating the descent of your baby and cervical change.

Suggestions

  • Try creating mantras to remind yourself what you should be doing. For example, during contractions you might repeat "Relax and Open", and between contractions you might say "There is no pain right now".
  • Have your partner gently place a hand on your shoulder during contractions, as a reminder to release your muscle tension starting from head to toe.

Frequent Position Changes

You probably have heard that frequent position changes will help your labor progress, right? But what does that mean exactly? What positions? How frequent? Well, you will finally get some clarification.

The Why

The purpose of having laboring mothers make frequent position changes is actually to change the fetal position inside the uterus and pelvis, hopefully achieving optimal positioning for delivery. The "face down" or (occiput anterior left or right), which means that if you are lying on your back, the baby will be born looking down towards the floor and not up at the ceiling, has been considered the ideal fetal position for birth.

Secondly, as the baby changes positions in utero, you will continue to have contractions with the baby in these various positions. Contractions push the presenting part, the baby's head, against the cervix to cause effacement and dilation. Having this pressure placed on the cervix at various angles will result in more efficient dilation and hopefully faster progress.

The How

There are three things you must keep in mind when trying to get your baby to change positions during labor.

  1. The back is heaviest part of your baby's body
  2. As you change positions, gravity will shift the baby's back accordingly
  3. Although you change position in an instant, it takes time for the baby's position to change

You must think of position changes from the perspective of the fetus, who is upside down in a aquatic environment. Potential positions for the fetus include vertical, horizontal, side lying, and angled. To achieve the most effective progress, a laboring mom must alternate among these positions. Also, try to keep your legs shoulders width apart while standing, sitting and even while lying, by using pillows or a peanut ball. This keeps the path open for the baby.

Vertical

When you sit, stand, squat or walk your baby remains vertical within your uterus placing a direct, pushing pressure on the cervix. So, from the baby's perspective these are all the same position, vertical.

Horizontal

In the hands and knees position, your uterus is horizontal in relation to the surface you are on. If able to move, the baby's back should fall forward encouraging the optimal "face down" position. To enhance this position and encourage fetal rotation, perform the "Cat-Cow" back exercise between contractions. Having contractions in this position creates a rocking motion against the cervix.

Side Lying

Lying far on your left side, or far on your right side causes the baby's back to drift towards the bed, over time. Just like you are lying on your side, your baby is also side lying. This results in the head twisting against the cervix, as if the baby is trying to burrow through. Consider each side a separate position while rotating through the various positions.

Angled

Angled covers a variety of positions. Some examples include lying down on your back with your head elevated, lying down with a slight tilt either right or left, sitting on a birth ball while leaning forward against the end of the bed or a table, and standing while leaning forward over a counter or in the arms of your partner. Contracting in these various positions causes a pushing pressure on different points along the circumference on your cervix.

The Notorious K.’s Physiologic Positions & Movements For Labor And Birth
The Notorious K.’s Physiologic Positions & Movements For Labor And Birth | Source

The When

How frequent is frequent enough to be effective? There is no magical number and there are numerous factors to take into consideration. When a pregnant mom changes her position, it takes time for the fetus to change their position. Factors in play include, but are not limited to: the size and position of the baby, frequency and intensity of contractions, maternal energy level and ability to sleep. Due to these factors, some positions might be more comfortable than others. Yet again mental state plays an important role here. Try to keep the ultimate goal of birthing your baby in mind. To reach this goal you should aim to speed up your progress, not to remain in one or two comfortable positions thus prolonging things.

If unable to sleep, try changing positions every 30-60 minutes. Changing too frequently does not allow time for the baby to shift positions. Again, remember to alternate between a vertical, horizontal, side lying, or angled position with each change. Do not do three different positions in the vertical category in a row and expect change. Remember, as far as the baby is concerned these are one position. When changing positions, you might find that the first few contractions in the new position can be quite uncomfortable. This is because the baby is settling into position and you must acclimate to the new sensations and pressure points you feel in the new position. Try to complete at least 5 contractions in each new position, even if it is uncomfortable, before shifting into a new one. This way, you might still gain some benefit out of the position change.

If you have been at it for a while and contractions are mild enough that you think you are able to sleep, or things have spaced out and you have a little break, take advantage of this and use the time to restore your energy and resolve. Have faith in your body. It is common for things to rev up and ease off during early labor. Do not think that you mustn't be making progress while in the bed. The trick to effectively laboring while in bed is to stay hydrated, and use the peanut ball in order to keep the pelvis open and increase the amount of positions that you are able to get into. Each time you get up to the bathroom, change positions. By doing this you increase the likelihood of making progress while resting. Contractions are needed to make change so if they are quite spaced out minimal change is likely to take place, but that is ok. After a few hours of rest get up, refuel and get back to work.

As Promised: Here are positioning techniques you can use to labor most effectively while resting in bed.

Have you used the peanut ball during labor?

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Words of Encouragement

Congratulations, you are in early labor! This means that things have started to happen, and you are that much closer to meeting your little one. Each labor is different. Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Live in the "Now", embrace your contractions and just get through each contraction one at a time. Remember that this is a natural process and your body was made to do this.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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