“I literally thought I would never go into labor on my own. It felt like I was going to be pregnant forever! I had weeks of pre-labor waves that would come and go and stop and start. It gave me a lot of time to practice my relaxation and breathing skills, which I was actually so grateful for. When my active labor began, I already knew exactly how to breathe through my expansions. Oh… and I wasn’t pregnant forever! Babies do come out!”
What is Practice Labor?
This is the longest phase of labor, and can last many days or weeks. Expansions are inconsistent, sporadic and mild, generally lasting well under a minute in length. There is no need to “do” anything about it or try to hurry things along. Your body is wise and it knows exactly what it’s doing! If you have any concerns about what’s going on, discuss them with your care provider. Get plenty of rest, eat nutritiously, and stay hydrated. If expansions are continuous but inconsistent and unproductive, try The Belly Lift.
- Cervix begins to soften and thin (dilation & effacement).
- Cervix may or may not dilate anywhere from 0–3 cm.
- Cervix may or may not begin to change position from posterior to anterior.
- Uterus begins to contract intermittently to “warm-up” for the big day.
- Cortisol (a stress hormone) levels rise towards the end of pregnancy, which helps prepare the baby’s lungs for life outside the womb, while also playing a role in beginning the hormonal process of labor.
- As a result of this surge of cortisol, you may begin to feel some emotional stress. You may feel irritable, or impatient for labor to begin. You may feel like you’ve been pregnant forever and you can’t stand it anymore.
- Some women feel suddenly nervous or unprepared, even if they’ve been practicing faithfully.
- You may or may not experience frustration with your partner, difficulty concentrating at work, etc. All of these feelings are normal, and are nothing to worry about. You’re getting close to going into labor.
- Allow the feelings to come… and then let them go. Continue to focus on practicing your relaxation skills. Anchor your feelings of frustration or irritation to a positive mental thought such as: My baby knows when to be born, and my body knows how to give birth. My baby will be born at exactly the right time.
Am I in Labor Yet?
A lot of couples worry that they won’t know when the baby is coming; that they’ll go to the hospital too early… or leave home too late. It’s useful to understand the signs of impending labor, so that you know your body is getting ready for the big day. The number one question I get asked as a doula is “How do I know if I’m in labor” and my best answer is always “It’s like being in love: When it’s the real thing, you’ll just know.” Generally speaking, if you’re still wondering, you probably aren’t in active labor yet.
While the following symptoms are signs of progress, they do not mean that you will go into labor within a few hours or days. They are simply a means of saying that your body is getting ready to give birth. You may want to note the date you experienced any of these signs, or you may take a more relaxed approach and not pay much attention, knowing that labor will begin when you and baby are good and ready!
Signs of Labor may include:
- A sudden increase of energy, stress, impatience, irritability caused by catecholamines
- The baby engages in the pelvis
- An upset stomach
- Loose stools
- Bloody show (this may be the cervix beginning to open, or from sex or a vaginal exam)
- Loss of your mucus plug
- Slight increase in blood pressure
- Increase in “practice” expansions (commonly called Braxton Hicks contractions)
- A persistent crampy feeling, like period cramps
- Expansions that get longer, stronger and closer together, forming a pattern for at least an hour
Some women notice most or all of these signs, but others don’t experience any; either way is perfectly normal. You shouldn’t worry if you aren’t; that just means your body is preparing in a different manner. The signs of labor may also differ from baby to baby, so what you experienced the first time may not happen the second time.
Release of Membranes (Water Breaking)
This is a definitive sign of labor! In about 2-3 out of 10 births, the membranes release before labor begins. However, most of the time the waters do not release until later in labor, often not until after transition, when mama is getting ready to push. When your water breaks it may be just a constant slow trickle, or a sudden gush. You should notify your care provider when your waters release, and in the event of the following circumstances:
- Fluid is not clear, but green or brownish
- If you can see or feel the umbilical cord in the vagina (Get into the knee-chest position and call 911 if this occurs)
- Do not place anything inside the vagina after waters have released. Avoid intercourse and vaginal exams
Practice Labor or True Labor?
It can be hard to tell if you are experiencing practice labor or “True” labor. Here are some characteristics of each:
- Expansions do not increase in length or intensity over a period of 1-2 hours.
- Expansions are erratic, coming at random intervals and lasting for varying lengths of time.
- You can walk and talk, or continue your normal activities during expansions.
- Expansions diminish or disappear if you change your activity level or position.
- May be caused by dehydration: Expansions diminish if you hydrate yourself and relax.
- Expansions are getting longer, stronger and closer together.
- Expansions become rhythmic, forming a predictable pattern which grows.
- You feel the need to focus and breathe through your expansions, and no longer want to walk or talk through them.
- Expansions remain consistent regardless of activity or position.
- Expansions intensify when you hydrate and relax.
Practice labor is a vital part of the birth process! Don’t try to force it into becoming active labor. Your body knows best. Your cervix is softening, your hormones are changing, and your baby is rotating into the best position for birth. Here are some strategies that may help you make the best of your practice labor. It’s a great way to manage early labor, as well. If you’re not sure if it’s real labor or warm-up labor, try the following sequence:
- Drink some water, red raspberry leaf tea or coconut water. Dehydration can cause uterine cramping. Just drink to thirst; you don’t need to over-hydrate.
- Empty your bladder.
- Take a warm, relaxing bath for about 30 minutes. A bit of Epsom Salt can help relax tense muscles. You should be comfortably warm, and not so hot that you begin to sweat a lot.
- Drink some more clear fluids, and empty your bladder again.
- Lay down on your left side (which optimizes blood flow to your uterus and baby).
- Turn on your affirmations or a relaxation track.
- Allow yourself to fall asleep and nap as long as you like.
If it’s practice labor, this sequence will probably relax your muscles enough to cause it to slow down or stop. If it’s real labor, it will relax your muscles enough to help labor progress! Either way, you’ve just gotten into a state of deep relaxation, rested your birthing muscles, and replenished your fluids and electrolytes, and that’s always good for a pregnant and birthing mama.
“Almost as soon as I got up I started to have this crampy feeling that I’d not yet experienced. It would start, then go away, then start again. This happened a number of times, at consistent intervals. I tried to distract myself with a movie but it wasn’t happening. The expansions (our word for contractions) were steady so I decided to time them. They were 3-4 minutes apart lasting about 30-45 seconds. I walked, bounced on my birthing ball, did some yoga stretches until I decided to wake my husband. ‘Hey baby…I think I’m in labor. — what, REALLY?’ So we go on doing the things I had procrastinated, such as: packing a hospital bag, packing a diaper bag, packing the daddy doula kit, installing the car seat… You know, just the important stuff. A little after 8 AM I contacted my Doula. We were supposed to have our last pre-natal Doula visit that evening. I guess our dress rehearsal was going to be the real thing.” — Holly
Early labor may stop and start again over a period of several hours, up to a day or two. A very long early labor is nothing to worry about medically, however, it can be tempting to try to hurry things along. Lots of rest and quiet time is best. When your expansions begin they will be very mild and won’t last very long. You may not even know what’s going on at first, and that’s ok. Your body will tell you when you’re in active labor, and when you need to get to your birth location. Don’t time your expansions in early labor. Just get in tune with your body, relax and breathe, and listen to your relaxation recordings and music. Drink clear fluids, eat lightly, take a warm bath, and then take a nap. Don’t announce early labor to family or friends, or even post about it on social media. Go about your business and do activities that create calm, peaceful, positive feelings for you. This is the best approach to helping early labor progress most quickly and effectively into active labor. The more you worry about and focus on what’s going on, the more you’ll chase it away. The more you relax and focus on other things, the more quickly this time will pass.
- Cervix further softens and thins. You may dilate anywhere from 0 – 5 or 6 cm.
- Expansions get longer, stronger and closer together, but are mild enough to talk and walk through.
- An increase in prostaglandins may cause a warm, heavy feeling low in your uterus.
- Most women feel excited and happy in early labor. You may feel a surge of adrenaline and energy.
- You’ll probably feel energetic and positive. Your expansions are easy to work through.
- If you feel any nervousness, concentrate on taking deep, slow breaths and you’ll find that it settles quickly.
How to help early labor progress more quickly:
You’ve been practicing for weeks for this moment! You’ll know exactly what to do if you breathe, relax your muscles, and follow your instincts.
- Don’t time expansions or make a big deal of early labor: a watched pot never boils. Nothing inhibits oxytocin and slows labor more than being “on the clock”.
- If you can still carry on a conversation during your expansions, it’s still early labor. Early labor is shy, and it shuts down easily when you feel observed or pressured.
- Take a break from social media. Social media is, by nature, a form of social exposure and pressure, and social pressure can greatly slow or even stop labor.
- Mute your phone. Don’t accept calls or texts for a while. Constant queries of “have you had that baby yet?” will keep you from having that baby.
- When you begin to have expansions, do your best to ignore them as long as you possibly can. Go about your daily activities, but stay close to home and get lots of rest.
- Dim the lights, or find a nice dark space to relax. Dim lighting increases your sensitivity to the birth hormones.
- Have some private time. Your birthing hormones will kick in more effectively if you go within and allow it to happen on its own. Keep to yourself for a few hours and have “quiet time” with your unborn baby.
- When you do have expansions, try the Belly Lift (from unit 4) to help increase pressure on the cervix and speed dilation.