Early Labour

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Early Labour

In Early Labour the cervix begins to dilate from closed to 4-6 centimetres dilated. The difference between Early Labour and the previous phase of Pre-Labour is that the contraction pattern changes every 1-2 hours. Contractions are still short (less than 50 seconds long), but they are more regular coming 10 minutes apart and closing. They may also be more intense, requiring the woman's full concentration.

This stage can take significant time, energy and patience. Until the contractions intensify further and the woman's endorphin level rises significantly, distraction techniques will enable her to actively relax her body, by focusing her mental attention elsewhere.

The process

The cervix begins to dilate from 0 centimetres to 4-6 centimetres. During the Pre-labour phase, the cervix has ripened and the baby’s position has improved, so that the baby's chin is now more tucked in (flexed) and its head is better applied to the cervix. The cervix is now stretched more evenly by the baby's head during contractions and this triggers a rise in the oxytocin level. The rising oxytocin level creates a change in the contraction pattern, which now becomes more regular. The contractions are still short (less than 50 seconds long) but they are now long enough and regular enough to begin to open up the cervix. By the end of early labour the cervix might be anywhere from 3 to 6 centimetres dilated.

The baby’s head moves further down into the pelvis. Every 1 to 2 hours, something changes with the contractions. They might become stronger, longer or more regular, 7 – 10 minutes apart for example. Early Labour can last 6 – 8 hours or longer depending on the baby’s position.

The woman’s body is working harder now and she will need to concentrate on each contraction. The intensity of the contractions increases and so the woman's beta-endorphin level begins to rise. Beta-endorphin is the body’s natural pain-killing hormone, similar to opiates in chemical structure. The more beta-endorphin is circulating in her bloodstream, the more the woman's attention will start to turn inwards. She will stop speaking in between contractions and want to rest more.

What you could do to help yourself

If your labour has started at home and everything is normal – stay at home whether you plan to give birth there or not. The ideal situation is to experience all of the early stage of labour at home. Changing your environment will result in adrenaline release which may slow down or stop your labour. You can find out more about this here.

Early Labour can be challenging because you are now working hard, but your endorphin level has not yet risen sufficiently and so you may still be very present and aware. Distraction techniques can be very useful for this stage of the labour. You could try:

  • breathing consciously, by extending your out breath, sometimes counting can help with this;
  • affirmations and visual focal points;
  • heat packs on your lower back and under your belly;
  • a learnt relaxation technique you might have been practicing during pregnancy.

If you have lots of energy and have been sleeping well, carry on as normal, but make sure that you avoid fatigue. If you get tired, sleep.

If you are planning to use a TENS Machine, now is the time to put it on. Ask your partner or support person to give you a hand with this. TENS stands for Transelectrocutaneous Nerve Stimulation and it involves using a handheld machine which attaches to two sets of electrodes. The electrodes are placed on the woman’s lower back over the areas where the nerve endings for the cervix and uterus insert into the spinal column. A low frequency pulse is sent into the electrodes via the base unit. The amplitude of the current can be increased or reduced, according to your preference and a boost button allows you to increase the sensation from the TENS machine during contractions. TENS works on the ‘Gate Control Theory of Pain Relief’, in the same way as rubbing a part of the body that hurts can make it feel better.

Remaining active during the day will take your mind off things. Don’t forget to eat at meal times if you are hungry and continue to drink with thirst.

During the night, it is important that you rest. Sleep is obviously the best possibility, but if you are unable to sleep you could take a warm bath or shower to relax your body and then go back to bed with a heat pack. Rest is very important, there is significant work ahead!

What partners can do to help

Ok, now its getting exciting! Its time to give your midwife, doctor or the hospital a call and let them know that you are in early labour. They will ask to speak to your partner as they will need to collect some information from her about her labour so far and they will be able to tell a lot about how progressed her labour is by speaking with her. If you need information or reassurance, make sure you speak to them again before you hang up.

You will find it reassuring to time the labour contractions. When you time contractions, it is important to time how long the contraction lasts and how frequently they are coming. To time their frequency, you start from the beginning of one, to the beginning of the next. So, 7 minutely contractions might involve 30 seconds of contraction, plus 6.5 minutes interval.

Early Labour can be a challenging part of the process because the contractions are now more intense, but your partner's endorphin level has not yet risen sufficiently to ease her mind. Distraction techniques can be very useful for this stage of the labour. You could try:

  • breathing along with her during contractions to help her lengthen her out breath, counting can sometime help with this;
  • offering her affirmations and or something visual to focusing upon;
  • any learnt relaxation technique you have been practicing together, early labour can be a good time to try it out;
  • helping her put the TENS machine on now;other things which can help now are:
  • heat packs on the lower back and under her belly;
  • firm pressure on her lower back during contractions and massage in between contractions to get her good and relaxed. counter pressure to her sacrum during contractions.
  • encouragement and love, never underestimate how powerful this can be.

If you partner doesn't need you, its time to think ahead. Established Labour is not far off. There are two key things to think about: packing the car and creating the right space for your partner to labour in, once Established Labour begins. 

Packing the car in Early Labour will mean that everything is ready when you need to go to hospital or Birth Centre, if that is where you are planning to give birth. Ideally you want to avoid having to do this work when your partner is in Established Labour and may need your support more.

Labouring women need a very specific kind of environment in order to maximise the efficiency and ease of the process and make it as safe as possible. Essentially, your partner will need to feel undisturbed, safe and warm. You can find out why, here. A few minor adjustments to your bedroom can create the space she will need. If your curtains let alot of light in, you can put a heavy blanket up over the window or even buy a length of 'Block out' material for this purpose. This can come in handy again in the baby's room after the birth, to create a dark sleeping space. Women in early labour will spontaneously start to gravitate to dark places as Established Labour approaches.

If everything is in place and your partner still doesn't need you, try to rest. This is still not 'real' labour, and you will be working harder to support her once her labour estabishes.






5-10 minutes


The typical length of time from the start of one contraction to the start of the next in Early Labour.






30-50 seconds


The typical length of a contraction in Estabished Labour.








The safest place to be when working with early labour, as long as conditions remain normal.