What to do in early labour?

The first pangs of labour are usually accompanied by a range of emotions - relief and excitement that the day has finally arrived, and perhaps a little nervousness about what labour and birth will bring. Early labour can last for hours and sometimes days. This is why rest and relaxation…..and a little distraction, are so important at this stage



If early labour is a lengthy experience for you, it's normal to feel frustrated and wonder if your body is working as it should. However, it's important to know that this is a common experience, especially for first time mothers, and that your body IS working hard to prepare for active labour and the arrival or your beautiful new baby.

What is early labour?

Early labour is the first and longest stage of labour. The cervix moves into the front position and begins to soften, thin (efface) and dilate from 0-4cm. Your contractions will be shorter, less intense and typically 5-20 minutes apart. As the baby's head moves further down into the pelvis, the cervix will stretch more evenly and trigger the release of extra oxytocin, the love hormone. Rising oxytocin levels will change the pattern of your contractions making them stronger, longer and more regular. These contractions open up the cervix further and help you to progress to active labour. When you reach this stage your cervix will be anywhere between 3-6cm dilated.

What does early labour feel like?

During early labour you may begin to feel restless or notice a metallic taste in your mouth. This taste is caused by the release of oxytocin, which acts as a natural pain reliever and triggers and controls contractions throughout labour. You may experience pain in your thighs, lower back and abdomen and mild contractions, which can feel similar to lower abdomen pressure, gas pain or menstrual cramps. Some women also have a bloody show or lose part of their mucus plug, which seals the opening of the cervix.

When I birthed Sammy was twelve days "overdue". Each night, for seven nights, I experienced Prodromal labour (warm up labour) and each night I thought maybe this is it! Maybe I will finally get to meet my gorgeous baby. On the eighth night when the sensations came again I relaxed on my fitness ball and watched something funny on TV. By 2.30am, when things usually settled down, my contractions were becoming stronger and more regular - about five minutes apart. I walked into the bedroom to tell my partner and my waters broke all over the bed! Right, I thought...time to call my midwife!

What to do in early labour?

It can be tempting to go straight to the hospital once early labour begins, but as long as you and your baby are safe, the best place for you and bub is actually at home. Here you can stay in a comfortable environment and use a mixture of rest, relaxation and distraction to travel through this stage of labour. Here are my top tips to pass the time:

Call your midwife / care provider

When labour begins you may want to call your midwife for an early assessment over the phone. They will likely ask if:

  • your waters has broken
  • how far apart your contractions are, (surges) and if
  • you need support, advice or ideas for pain relief - get in the bath/ shower etc


For most women labour and birth is a marathon not a sprint so rest is key. If labour starts during the evening, try to go back to sleep if possible - or at least have a lay down. You should also encourage your birth partner to continue resting. This isn't the best time to go for a long walk or exert yourself either as you want to preserve as much energy as possible. (Unless your body is telling you to and you can't sit/ lie down- this can happen for some women). Listening to what your body needs and wants to do is key.

Eat and drink

It's important to eat and drink to keep your energy levels up and stay hydrated. 300mls of water every few hours is recommended to avoid dehydration and for proper functioning of the uterus. When picking meals go for food that provides long lasting energy. Light carbs like fruit, brown bread and cereals are a great choice. I remember having a cup of tea and a bowl of porridge around 2am to calm the hunger pains!

Throwing up toward the end of labour is actually quite common so it's also a good idea to avoid greasy foods or anything that usually doesn't agree with you. Don't let this put you off though - eating and drinking has been shown to shorten labour by up to 90 minutes.

Distract yourself

Finding a way to distract and entertain yourself in early labour can help you pass the time and ease any worry or anxiety you may be feeling about birth. You could:

  • Read a book or watch a funny film - laughter is a great way to increase your oxytocin levels
  • Go for a gentle walk
  • Write in your pregnancy journal
  • Prepare meals or ice blocks ready for your postpartum period
  • Do something you've been meaning to do before the baby arrives
  • Meditate or listen to music or positive affirmations
  • Double check that your birth bag is packed and ready to go

Enlist the help of your birth partner

  • Feeling supported and cared for by your birth partner is key to experiencing a wonderful birth.
  • Your partner can do this by:
  • Offering verbal reassurance and company
  • Running you a bath
  • Applying heat packs or helping you use a tens machine to ease pain
  • Preparing you something to eat or drink
  • Caring for your other children
  • Timing and breathing with you through your contractions
  • Giving you a massage
  • Calling your midwife or hospital if need be


This is a great tool for comfirt during pregnancy and birth. Here's a great article about 3 techniques to use during pregnancy and birth. A rebozo is a long woven cloth that can be used as both a massage tool in labour and a wrap to carry a newborn. To relieve pain in labour the rebozo is wrapped around a woman's hips, while they are standing, lying or positioned on all fours. The midwife or birth partner then uses the cloth to sway her hips from side to side. This motion is sometimes called rocking, jiggling or a pelvic massage and works to relax the pelvic muscles and improve the babies position for birth.

Stay at home as long as possible

Staying home during early labour improves your chances of having a shorter, more positive, active labour. It's much easier to relax and distract yourself at home and you are much less likely to receive interventions if you arrive to hospital is established labour. 

Once you reach active labour you should go to the hospital or ask your midwife to attend to you if you are birthing at home. Active labour will be marked by stronger, longer and more regular contractions. They may go for roughly 60 seconds and be 3-5 minutes apart.

As you progress through all stages of labour it's important to remember labour and birth is a natural and safe thing. Your body is perfectly designed to birth your baby and you do have the power to experience a wonderful and beautiful birth.

If you would like to learn more about the birthing process and how you can plan for an amazing birth you can check out my range of programs. I also love connecting with mums to be and birth partners so please feel free to get in touch you have any questions.