‘Mistakes’ is a strong word when describing a woman’s reaction to the experience of labor. I imagine telling a woman in labor she’s ‘making a mistake’ might lead to even more anxiety about a process that is already naturally stressful! It might make her feel that she is "failing" at being in labor.
One thing we know is that stress hormones get in the way of labor hormones. The way a woman and her partner and labor team handle the entire process can either enhance or hinder the process.
How about we call them ‘miscalculations’ or ‘misjudgements’?
Miscalculations in early Labor:
Wait, but aren’t you supposed to time contractions? Yes you are. The reason for timing contractions is to determine if you are actually in labor or pre-labor, also called Braxton-Hicks contractions. (Timing contractions also determines what stage of labor you are in.) At some point, first time moms, will ask, “What do contractions feel like?” Ah, the million dollar question. As a Doula, and a 2-time mom myself, I still do not feel confident I can give a one-size-fits-all answer to this. I can only describe my own experience and sometimes I can’t even find the accurate words. We are all as unique in our reaction to our bodies preparing to bring a mini-human into the world as we are in our every day personalities, habits and tastes. “You will KNOW when you are in labor…” is something many women are told. Movies would have us believe that when your water breaks (usually a huge, dramatic gush), then you’re having a baby right now!!!
But what about women whose water never breaks?
So, when exactly is it really Labor?
Here's the 4-1-1:
Contractions 4 minutes apart, 1 minute long each, for 1 hour.
What you are looking for is CONSISTENCY.
Ok, so you’ve timed them for an hour, now what? This is where the ‘misjudgments’ are likely to come in. Do you dash to the hospital? Do you start the comfort measures you’ve learned? Call everybody with the news? Keep timing? There’s excitement and there’s apprehension of everything laying ahead for mom and baby!
Most likely you'll tell your partner first that you are actually in labor. You should let your OB or Midwife know you are definitely having consistent contractions. If you have a Doula, this is the perfect time to call her for support. As your Doula, I would say "great!" How are you handling the exciting news and the contractions? If nothing seems alarming, let’s STOP TIMING.
For one, timing the contractions and counting the hours will not make the process any faster. If anything, it can add unnecessary stress. Stress leads our bodies to produce catecholamines (stress hormones) that can actually slow down, and even stall labor. Also, can you imagine how long and boring that could get?
So, dear Doula, what to do, what to do?
Here’s a good rule of thumb:
When in labor, do life.
When labor is all you can do, then do labor!
I cannot stress enough the importance of relaxation and distractions during early labor. Remember, your uterus knows how to contract. Trust your body.
Some ideas of what to do in early labor:
This is easier said than done, especially for first time moms. There’s excitement, there’s nervousness… and there’s partners as well with their own reactions. However, do give it a fair try. Have some sleepytime tea if that helps. Listen to some relaxing music or watch a mindless show to shut your mind off. Have your partner give a soothing massage. Make love if you feel up to it. Then try and get your zzzs in.
If a laboring woman is tired her body's ability to handle stress and discomfort is compromised. So, if the contractions woke you up in the middle of the night, and are bearable enough, find a way to go back to sleep dear mom. You’ll be glad you got the rest; you’ve got some ‘labor’ cut out for you in the morning.
Your hospital may have a policy that restricts eating during labor. This is usually a safety precaution in case the mother needs a cesarean. This rule leads many women to think they should not eat anything at all the minute labor begins!
Labor takes a lot of physical energy. Eating light in early labor is an excellent way to store up on this natural resource and prevent exhaustion when you need all the strength you can get. Pick snacks you crave and enjoy. Make your favorite meal, or have your partner/ family make it with you or for you. Cooking can be a fun and satisfying distraction. Go out to eat! Enjoy the look on people’s faces when they ask you when you are due and you answer, “Right now...”
As labor progresses, your desire to eat naturally goes down. When you feel you have an appetite, that’s because the body needs food to store up for fuel later. Hunger is a sign you are most likely still in early labor. Eat up, dear mom. The baby wants it (wink).
It is tempting to stop everything and lie down as soon as labor begins, especially if it’s your first labor. There is also the misconception that you have to speed to the hospital/ birthing center as soon as you start labor. This is also likely to happen if you have more people than just the mom paying attention to labor too soon. Family and friends mean well and want to be helpful to you in labor. They care about your safety, they do not want to see you in discomfort and they want to pamper you as well. These 2 misjudgments could set the mother up for a longer and slower labor. It can actually increase the stressfulness of the event or cause mental and emotional fatigue due to boredom.
So long as physically possible, I would encourage mom to continue normal, light activities during labor. So, go to baby’s room and finish setting up. This is sure to put a smile on your face and take you to a relaxed place in your mind. Make sure everything you need is in your bag. If you have other children, doing an activity with them while talking about the new baby's arrival into the world is such great bonding for the family. Prepare snacks for yourself for later, for example, chop fresh fruit or make sandwiches. Take a walk around the neighborhood or at the beach. Go to a store you like to look around or to the mall to people watch. Go sight seeing at the park with your partner or a friend. Really, it is not unsafe to go about your regular daily routine in early labor as long as you are medically sound.
Whatever you do however, it is imperative that you have alerted your medical provider and Doula that you are in labor. It is also very important to have your affairs in order, for example, bag packed and handy, car fueled, childcare arranged. If you are travelling to a hospital or birthing center for the birth, stay within a decent mile radius of the location. Travel closer if you anticipate a lot of traffic.
Most importantly, do enjoy this special day. Happy birthing day!
*How, then, do you know when you are no longer in early labor?
You will notice a change in the intensity of contractions. They start to feel stronger and longer. You might also have to stop an activity to relax through the contractions. Then is when to start counting and timing contractions again.
In our next article, we talk about the most common mistakes in active labor.