What happens during the first stage of labor

What happens during the first stage of labor

Tips for coping with labor

Pace yourself. Most labors last many hours. First labors often start slowly. It usually takes a number of hours for the cervix to thin out (efface) and open (dilate) to three centimeters. Sometimes contractions start and stop over a period of days. Pace yourself for a long haul.

Allow time to adjust. If your contractions begin suddenly or suddenly get stronger, you may feel challenged and less in control. You will need to find a rhythm for dealing with this change. Consider changing your breathing or your position. It may take several contractions before you feel you are working well with your contractions.

Share labor with a companion. Having your partner, family member, friend or a labor companion with you is important. They can give you loving support and can be a real help keeping you focused on breathing and relaxation.

In addition, your labor companion helps you with comfort techniques, shares your wishes with the hospital staff, and relays information back to you.

Do it your way. Although you and your labor companion have practiced specific techniques, you may use others when you are in labor. Or, you may even make up new ways to cope. Do whatever works best and helps you deal with the contractions and rest in between them.

Stay home as long as possible. Follow your health care provider's instructions. In general, don't go to the hospital in early labor just because you are in early labor. If your water hasn't broken, stay at home as long as you comfortably can. It is easier to relax at home.

If you don't have a change to your cervix or you aren't having regular contractions—even if you are dilated past three centimeters—your heath care team may recommend you go home.

Get some rest. If you are tired or this is your normal sleep time, try to sleep. Take a warm shower to relax you. Sleep between contractions if you can. This will conserve your energy. If you are rested, alternate activity and resting.

Distract yourself to stay relaxed. Take a walk early in labor. Watch a movie. Read. Talk with family members and friends. Play a game. Take a warm shower or bath. Think about a calm and pleasant place. Think about your baby. Staying relaxed keeps your body supplied with oxygen and lets your uterus do the work of thinning and opening your cervix.

Nourish yourself. Drink water, fruit juices or tea. Drink at least six ounces each hour. Eat lightly. Eat foods that are easy to digest like Jell-O®, toast and soup.

Go to the bathroom. Go to the bathroom every few hours. Don't wait until you feel you have to urinate. A full bladder makes labor more uncomfortable. It may also slow your baby's progress through your vagina (birth canal).

Listen to music and make your own sounds. If music helps relax or distract you, play what sounds best to you. Be sure to bring a music player and your favorite music to the hospital. Sing, chant, pray, talk or moan. Do what feels right for you.

Use your mind-body exercises. It is important to relax your mind and body during labor. This lowers your blood pressure and brings more oxygen to your uterus and baby. Use the breathing and guided imagery techniques you've learned.

Try aromatherapy. Trigger relaxation with your sense of smell. Simple aromatherapy scents, like lavender, are probably best. Being in labor can make you extra sensitive to smells. When you're at home, light a scented candle or burn incense. When you're going to the hospital, take a pillow scented with
your favorite fragrance.

At the hospital, you have the choice of using essential oil inhalers: lavender, sweet marjoram, mandarin or ginger. Check with your nurse before using a scent that fills the room.

Use touch to relax. Ask your labor companion to give you a massage or a foot rub. Do effleurage (a light, circular fingertip massage) on your abdomen or thighs. Ask them to do the things that help you relax like stroke your hair or forehead, or rub your neck and shoulders.

Use cold to dull pain and heat to aid relaxation and comfort. Try ice, a freezer pack, or a bag of frozen vegetables, such as peas. For warmth, use a hot water bottle, a heating patch, a heating pad, or a cotton sock filled with rice and warmed in the microwave. In the hospital, you can ask for a warmed blanket. Be sure to wrap hot or cold items in a towel to prevent hurting your skin.

Use positive labor affirmations. You may find it helpful and comforting to say positive, encouraging things to yourself. Say them out loud or silently. You can also ask your labor companion or doula to say them to you. Use phrases and sentences that are meaningful to you.

Here are some ideas:

  • "My body knows what to do."
  • "I am helping my body do its job."
  • "I am relaxed and focused."
  • "I can breathe deeply and slowly."
  • "I am calm and confident."
  • "I am in rhythm with my body."
  • "I have all the energy I need to birth my baby."
  • "My uterus is strong and can push my baby out."
  • "My baby moves farther down my pelvis with each contraction."
  • "My baby's head fits through my pelvis."
  • "My partner and I are welcoming our baby with love."

Source: Allina Health Patient Education, Beginnings: Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond, eighth edition, ob-ah-90026
First Published: 10/04/2002
Last Reviewed: 12/06/2021