Early labour

We’ve all heard stories about people who have been in labour for many hours and others who had their babies within minutes. Most are somewhere in between. While they all vary, they’re all normal.

Starting out

It can be boring and frustrating waiting for things to pick up the pace, you may go to hospital only to find you are not very far along at all. If you are not sure what to do, contact the maternity unit or your community midwife. You will describe your symptoms and be advised on whether you should do anything other than wait and see what happens. You may have a visit from a midwife who can examine you and help you decide the best place to be.

In the meantime try to relax by:

  • taking deep relaxing breaths
  • having a bath or shower
  • having your partner give you a gentle massage
  • using an ice pack or hot water bottle on your back if you are uncomfortable
  • walking around
  • eating a light snack and drinking plenty of water or fruit juice.

Sex and labour

There is a popular idea that sexual activity can start labour, when the baby is ready to be born. There may be some basis to this. Semen has natural prostaglandins (hormones) in it, and may stimulate the cervix to ‘ripen’ a little more. Sexual stimulation in the woman releases hormones – oxytocins – which are released in labour, too. There’s no evidence that any sexual activity starts labour too soon. If labour was about to begin anyway, then sex may help it a little.

How you may be feeling

It’s normal to feel nervous about the birth, especially if it seems to be taking forever and you are scared about the pain. It’s also quite normal to decide at this point that you’d like the baby to just stay in there – this isn’t an option!

What are contractions?

Contractions are the regular tightening of the uterus, working to dilate the cervix (neck of the womb) and to push the baby down the birth canal. Contractions usually feel like a tightening sensation across your tummy and possibly into your back and thighs. Each one usually begins gently, builds up to a peak and then trails off. They may remind you of period pains (which are also contractions of the uterus), or feel much more painful. Women have different experiences with contractions, as the intensity can vary a lot.

At the start of the first stage, contractions may last about 40-50 seconds and you may get one every ten minutes. By the end, each will last over a minute and there will be a gap of no more than a minute between them. Again, this can be different from woman to woman.

At this stage, contractions are opening the cervix to allow the baby to be born. This is called dilation. At the start, particularly if it’s your first baby, labour often moves quite slowly. When you are five and six centimetres dilated the contractions get longer and stronger and labour progresses more quickly. This is called established labour.

Try to keep the end goal in your mind. At the end of labour, you’ll have your baby. That’s what the past 40 or so weeks have been about and now it’s nearly time. Contractions are steps on the way to achieving that goal – bringing you closer to meeting your baby. And although they are usually painful, between each contraction you may not feel much pain at all.

Last Updated: 12 October 2009
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