Ways to Help Labor Progress
Toward the end of your pregnancy, there is one question on your mind constantly: "When am I going to go into labor?" For most pregnant women, labor will begin sometime after the 38th week of pregnancy. Others go into labor sooner or even later. It all depends on several factors, many of which are out of your control.
Once you are in labor, though, it's important that your partner help you as much as possible to progress smoothly through the first stage of labor, which is when you'll experience contractions and your body will prepare for the baby to come out. Here are some tips for you and your partner to get through this part of the journey by understanding the process of labor and using these helpful tips.
When Will I Go into Labor?
You may ask this question many times, especially as you near your due date. Unless you have a scheduled induction, you won't know when labor will begin until you start to notice the signs.
Labor will begin when:
- The baby is full term and ready to be delivered.
- Your body is ready to let the baby come out (i.e. dilation, effacement of the cervix, and contractions).
Unfortunately, there's no way yet of knowing how or why labor begins other than assuming the two items above. Since labor occurs differently for every woman and every pregnancy, there's no true way to pinpoint how the whole process begins for everyone. Is this information particularly reassuring to you if you are beyond ready to be done with your pregnancy? Probably not; in fact, you may get angry if your partner tells you that it will all happen in time.
Before trying to induce labor, it's important to speak with your doctor or midwife.
How to Start Contractions and Induce Labor
How Is Labor Medically Induced?
In its annual Listening to Mothers survey, Childbirth Connection reported that 41% of mothers surveyed indicated that their medical provider tried to induce labor, with three out of four of these women indicating that it was successful. Medically inducing labor has been controversial even within the medical community since it was suggested that doing so increases the likelihood of complications and the need for a C-section. However, new research suggests that this isn't true.
If your doctor believes that it's time to induce labor for a medical reason or to help keep you and the baby safe, here are the methods they may use:
Separating the amniotic sac from the wall of the uterus (stripping the membranes)
- Using this method, your medical provider will put a gloved finger through your cervix to separate the amniotic sac, which is holding your baby, from your uterus. This can easily be done in your doctor's office. You may feel some cramping and spotting afterward.
Ripening the cervix
- Your provider will give you a medicine that helps soften and thin your cervix. This medication can be taken orally or in a gel or suppository that your doctor inserts vaginally. This can will be done at the hospital.
Giving you medications to start contractions
- A medication called Pitocin (a man-made version of oxytocin, a hormone your body makes to help start contractions) is usually used to induce labor. It's given through an IV at the hospital and can result in strong contractions and/or an upset stomach.
Breaking your water
- Using this method, your doctor will use a small hook (similar to a knitting need) to break the amniotic sac. This procedure isn't usually painful, but you can expect to feel a warm rush of fluid.
How Long After Inducing Labor Will I Have My Baby?
According to Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse in New York and founder of RemediesForMe.com, "There is no set time as to when to expect your baby after inducing labor because every woman and every birth is different." It may also take longer for women who are pregnant for the first time or if you're less than 37 weeks along.
How Can I Induce Labor Naturally?
Disclaimer: I do not in any way suggest that a pregnant woman should try to induce labor earlier than that as the baby may not be ready to be born and can suffer serious consequences.
Here are some natural ways to start labor contractions:
- Exercise or walk around a lot, especially uphill.
- Have sex (it's okay to still have intercourse if you've already lost your mucus plug). Lee says, "Three ejaculations contains the same amount of prostaglandins that are in Cervidil, the medication used by doctors to widen the cervix."
- Eat something spicy (only do this if you're used to eating spicy foods).
- Bounce lightly on an exercise ball, do some gentle exercises, or walk around a lot, especially uphill or up the stairs.
- Try nipple stimulation. Try stimulating the entire breast with a slow massage behind the areola. You can either do this yourself or have your partner assist you.
- Note: While many women have claimed that this method successfully induced labor, some studies have suggested that it can result in reversible abnormalities in fetal heart rate patterns. It also should not be done by women who have high-risk pregnancies.
If these don't immediately work, at least they're helping to prepare your body for labor!
Some would suggest drinking castor oil or a few different teas and infusions (like a red raspberry leaf tea), but I strongly suggest that you not try any of those until speaking with a doctor first. They can cause terrible side effects—nausea, diarrhea, and dehyrdration—that you wouldn't necessarily want when going into labor; plus they may not be safe for you or the baby!
How to Progress Early Labor
Once you're in labor, it's full steam ahead! The baby is ready to make an appearance and the body is ready to help out.
Labor, especially the early stage of labor, can take hours, days, or even as much as a week or two. Within the first stage, the cervix needs to thin out (called effacement) and open up (called dilation). For the baby to be able to come out, the cervix needs to be 100% effaced and about 10 centimeters. Consistent contractions of the uterus help the cervix to both efface and dilate.
To help this stage of labor progress, you should be encouraged to:
- Walk around as much as possible between contractions. Walking helps the baby to move down into position and push on the opening of the cervix. If you're too tired to walk, move around while lying down. You can shift from your side to your back, for example, and then switch it up again a few minutes later.
- Stay hydrated. Being dehydrated can make things more difficult and make the contractions irregular. Remember, it's important for you to empty your bladder often.
- Rest whenever necessary. Labor can be a very difficult and long process, and it's important for you to get some rest to revive your system before going into active labor. Lay down on your left side if possible since this optimizes blood flow to your uterus and the baby.
- Stay in an upright position. Gravity can actually help with the progression of labor. Lying down too much can work against the natural forces that help the baby move downward.
- Find sources of comfort. If you require a quiet atmosphere to concentrate and labor in, make sure the area remains that way. If you want, play some quiet music in the background. Try some relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or visualization. Take a warm shower or a warm bath (although skip the bath if your water has broken). Support your body with comfortable pillows.
- Remain positive and reduce stress. Stressing about going into labor or labor itself can work against the natural process. Tensing up does not allow the muscles to relax and do their jobs. Have your partner help you stay positive and think happy thoughts as you progress through labor. Watch your favorite movie or read your favorite book.
Use a birth ball. Sit on the ball with your legs spread apart. You can gently rock on this ball to bring the baby's head down to your cervix to encourage dilation.
Doing these few things may help labor along, even though they may not help it progress quickly. A slow and steady progression of this stage of labor is best for both mom and baby.
Once you are in active labor with very strong contractions coming consistently in short intervals, you may need more encouragement and support. Have your partner quietly and gently speak words of encouragement to you, asking you if there's anything you may need them to do. Have them massage your lower back when the contractions come or between contractions to help with the pain. Of course, if you prefer to be left alone, let your partner know this. Just being there can be support enough.
Near the end of the first stage of labor, your body is preparing to push the baby out. At this point, there's not much else to do to help the labor progress as it has reached the climax.
What Happens if Labor Fails to Progress?
If you're a first-time mother whose labor lasts for 20 hours or more (14 hours or more if you've given birth before), you might then be experiencing prolonged labor. If you're still in the first stage, this will rarely lead to complications (though it can be extremely physically and emotionally exhausting!). However, if you're in the active stage, there can be cause for your concern.
It's important to remember that you did nothing wrong. There are a number of different reasons why this can happen, but it's not your fault. If you're in the latent phase, the best thing you can do is relax and wait for your cervix to ripen. You can also use some of the above tips, like walking, sleeping, or taking a warm bath.
If you're in the active stage of labor, your medical team check the frequency and strength of your contractions. Sometimes, you'll just be advised to rest for a little while. However, if it's determined that the contractions aren't strong enough, they may consider adding Pitocin (a medication used to speed up contractions and make them stronger) to move things along. If the baby is already in the birth canal, your doctor or midwife will help pull the baby out through the vagina using a special device.
If it's determined that the baby is too big or the medication is not speeding up the labor, a C-section (also known as a Cesarean section) may be something your doctor will insist upon if you're failing to progress. According to the American Pregnancy Association, around one-third of c-sections are performed due to this issue. However, if you're set on delivering vaginally, let your doctor or midwife know this and see if there are any other options (they may or may not be).
What Helps Contractions?
Every woman will experience contractions differently. Some women may feel the most pain their back while others feel it in their abdomen. You might be able to handle early contractions since they feel similar to menstrual cramps, but the intensity will vary as they continue to progress. Here are some ways to help cope with the pain:
- Relax: Easier said than done, but the more you can stay present and enjoy the moments between contractions, the better off you'll be.
- Breathe: It's important to always pay attention to your breathing; just by focusing on your breath and releasing it, you'll find some relief.
- Move around: Even though it might be hard to walk at this point, just standing or squatting or sitting by the side of the bed can help with the pain.
- Take a shower or bath: Just sinking into a warm bath can do wonders for pain. However, some doctors or midwives may discourage you from getting in the water for fear that it will slow down labor.
- Get a gentle massage: A massage can release endorphins and ease labor pains, so ask your partner for a neck rub or foot massage to help take your mind off the contractions. You can have the other person press on your tailbone with each contraction.
- Use a warm or cool compress: You can place the compress on your lower abdomen, groin, lower back, or shoulders. A cold compress can also relieve a sweaty face, chest, or neck.
- Cry out or scream: Sometimes, you'll just want to let the pain out verbally and that's more than okay. Your doctor or midwife has heard it all before.
- Epidural: If you're open to pain medication, an epidural can definitely help with labor pains. However, this is a personal choice since many mothers want to have a natural birth.
Some women might start to experience contractions during what's called prodromal labor (sometimes also known as "false labor"). This can be a common occurrence in the last few weeks of pregnancy. These contractions might come and go, but they're usually less than every five minutes and don't become more frequent. If you're experiencing these types of cramps, you can still follow the tips below to reduce the pain.
Did You Know?
Only 5% of women give birth on their actual due date.
Signs of Going into Labor
It's important to know what to look for in terms of the symptoms of going into labor. If you are in your 37th week of pregnancy or even further along, here are some labor symptoms to be aware of:
- Loss of the mucus plug
- Loss of fluid
- Bloody show
- Pelvic pain and/or pressure
- Contractions that are 5-10 minutes apart or closer
- A sudden feeling of unease
- Pelvic cramping, like that of a period
- Loose stools
- Lower back pain that is consistent
Any combination of these, especially with the consistent contractions, could mean labor. With my firstborn, I experienced the consistent contractions with the pelvic pain and pressure at 38 weeks. With my second born, I had contractions, but it was the sudden feeling of unease, pelvic cramping, and lower back pain that made me realize I was in labor at just 37 weeks. Every woman's experience is different. However, it is important to know the symptoms of labor beforehand so that everyone is prepared for the main event.
Signs of Preterm Labor
If you have not yet made it to your 37th week, you should make sure to contact your doctor immediately if you notice any signs of labor. You could be in preterm labor, which may not be good for you or the baby.
Fortunately, if you are in your 34th week or later, chances are great for a healthy baby. The baby may need just a few extra days of observation to make sure they are ready for breathing and eating.
Cervical Dilation in Each Stage of Labor
Stage 1: Latent Phase
Cervix is softening and shortening to prepare for labor
Stage 1: Active Phase
Fully dilated to 10cm
Welcoming a Newborn Baby
After the labor and delivery are complete, it's time to welcome the newborn baby. Both mother and baby may need rest after all the hard work, so keep that in mind before going crazy with pictures and calling in family or friends. Let the mother and baby have some bonding time, and congratulate her on a job well done.
Enjoy your new little one!
- "The Stages of Labor", BabyCenter. Accessed May 19th, 2018.
- "16 Ways to Make Childbirth Easier", Ask Dr. Sears. Accessed May 19th, 2018.
- "How to Induce Labor Naturally - Labor Induction Tips", Mama Natural. Accessed May 19th, 2018.
- "Inducing Labor", March of Dimes. Accessed May 19th, 2018.
- Chaunie Brusie, "Cervix Dilation Chart: The Stages of Labor", Healthline. Accessed May 19th, 2018.
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.
Questions & Answers
I'm 38 weeks pregnant, and I've been experiencing a lot of tightening in my upper abdominal. Could this be a sign of labor? This is my second pregnancy.
It is either Braxton Hicks contractions, or it is the beginning stages of labor.Helpful 28
I have a lot of pain and pressure on the pelvic area and frequent urination and back pain. I'm thirty-seven weeks pregnant. Is it labor pain?
It could be early labor. If it continues, please speak with your doctor. I felt that way when I was having my third baby, and it was actual labor.Helpful 23
This is my 7th baby. I'm 37 weeks 4 days pregnant. My back hurts and I am cramping really bad. How can I induce labor?
It's not recommend that you try any ways to put yourself into labor until you reach your due date.Helpful 18
I'm having a lot of pelvic pressure and severe pain in my pelvic bone. I am frequently urinating, and experiencing back pain and light cramps. Is labour near?
If you are near the end of your pregnancy, it is very possible that you are experiencing early labor. I suggest speaking with your doctor if it continues.Helpful 17
I am 37 weeks and six days pregnant. My left leg and waist pain me a lot whenever I lie down or want to turn over in bed or get up. Is this a sign of labour?
It could be a sign of labor, or it could be the way the baby is positioned inside of you. I suggest speaking with your doctor if the discomfort continues.Helpful 9
© 2012 Marissa