Understanding The Early Stage Of Labor
Judy Miders|
Early Stage Of LaborWhen most women think of childbirth, they think of lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by nurses and family members as the scream and push and finally give birth. But the truth is that this is actually only considered by doctors to be the second stage of labor. The first stage is a bit less painful, could last for a considerable amount of time, and could actually be going on without you even realizing it.
The early stage of labor, or the first stage as it's usually called, is actually divided into two separate stages – early labor and active labor. Understanding each of them is important for understanding not only what the early stage of labor is, but also how to tell when your labor is beginning and when you need to go to the hospital or prepare for a home delivery.
Early labor actually begins and occurs for some time before women even realize that it's going on. During early labor, your cervix begins to thin out and dilate. The cervix must do this to allow the baby to pass through it. During this time, the mucus plug is usually lost as well. Eventually, contractions will begin to come at regular intervals.
Contractions are really the key to knowing when you're in active labor and when you need to go to the doctor. When you're in the early stage of labor, contractions could be a very long distance apart, fairly mild, and very short-lasting. Once that you progress towards delivery, they'll slowly get closer together. Most doctors suggest that you head to the hospital when your contractions are coming every five minutes with regularity and last around 40 to 60 seconds at a time. The contractions will hurt, but are usually somewhat mild during this early stage.
Of course, your water may break at this point, too. If it does, that is a clear sign that you should head to the doctor or call your midwife. Don't expect it to be a waterfall, either. In many instances the familiar 'gush' of fluid doesn't occur, but instead there is a steady trickle of fluid that announces that the big moment is on its way.
Moving from the early stage into the second stage puts a woman in 'active' labor. This is when the cervix starts to dilate quickly and when contractions start to occur much more closely together. It's referred to in many instances as 'transition' since it is the transitional period into birth, and since it will be the transitional period into the kind of labor most women think of – the stage when they're actively pushing and working to help their baby into the world.
It's important to remember that no two pregnancies are the same, so it's not possible to give a basic timeframe as to how long active labor can last or will last for you. In some cases, the entire process of giving birth could last for 20 hours or longer from the beginning of the first stage through to the end of the process. Others may go from early labor to delivery within an hour. The key is to learn the basic signs of labor and to listen to your body. You'll be able to tell a good bit about the process simply by knowing what to expect and what your body is telling you.
There are a few things you can do to help early labor go more smoothly, too. Just a couple of steps will reduce your stress and eliminate the panic that can sometimes come with those first hours.
•         Educate Yourself – As mentioned above, just taking the time to learn a little bit more about labor and the early stage of it could help tremendously. You won't be left second guessing yourself, wondering if you're having Braxton Hicks or actual contractions, or worrying that something is wrong. A small bit of research will help you in a big way.
•         Plan Ahead – Knowing what to do is important, too. There's no need to panic, even though some TV shows or movies may present early labor in such a way. Have a basic plan for what you need to do and you'll be fine.
•         Be Packed – Pack your bag ahead of time. Include everything you'll need at the hospital and keep the bag nearby. This way you aren't rushing through your home trying to pack while you're fighting off contractions.
•         Relax – Just relax. It can be hard to do, since the combination of nervousness and excitement has your adrenaline pumping. But take a minute to take some deep breaths and try to relax. You and your baby will be fine.
There's a lot more to labor than what you probably have in your mind. Early labor is one part of the process you'll certainly want to familiarize yourself with before the big day.

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Photo credit: Zeppelinrace / Foter / CC BY