march 2022

Supporting early labour

15 min read Emma Ashworth Recommended Products
Supporting early labour

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One of the most common questions asked in antenatal classes is when to­­­ call the midwife or go to the hospital. In reality, it is likely that this will be quite obvious (basically when, or if, she feels she needs more support). Before then, your role is to provide the support she needs, and this blog will help to prepare you for this!

What is early labour?

Labour is often broken down into three stages: first, second and third. The first is when the cervix begins to open up (dilate) until it reaches around 10cm, the second stage is when the birthing woman or person pushes the baby out and the third stage is when she gives birth to her placenta.

Newsflash: no one bothered to tell our bodies about these stages!

The first stage of labour is far more complex than just the opening of the cervix and has a lot to do with the baby getting into a good position. As baby moves, turns and engages in the pelvis, they can trigger contractions which may not start to dilate the cervix for some time – and that’s ok! The latent phase of the first stage of labour can last hours, days and, sometimes, even weeks. This may be described as ‘false labour’, or women and people may be told that they’re not in labour, which can be very distressing when these contractions feel strong and powerful.

What can you do to support her during early labour?

Remind her that there’s nothing ‘false’ about what’s going on. This is an essential part of the process of giving birth. It can be tiring and, if it goes on for days, exhausting. Encourage her to rest as much as possible and, when she’s awake, she may feel good moving how her body tells her to. Many women and people find that leaning over something like the back of the sofa and swaying their hips feels good, or perhaps bouncing or swaying on a birth ball. Talk to her about how well she’s doing and remind her that this is normal – but also advocate for her if she needs more support, or pain relief, from the midwifery service.

The Dad's practical early labour check list!

Early labour is a great time to go through your checklist. If you’re planning a hospital birth, hopefully the car is full of fuel but, if you’re running on fumes, you might want to pop out to the local garage pronto! This is a good idea even if you’re having a home birth, just in case of an unplanned transfer to hospital.

Do you have plenty of car parking change? Or money for a taxi if that’s how you’re planning to travel? Again, early labour may not be the ideal time to find you don’t – far better to have dealt with this a week ago. But better now than when you do have to leave the house in a hurry!

Make sure you know where the hospital bag is, put the frozen colostrum in a cool box, locate the freezer packs for the placenta if you’re planning to keep it and, of course, get the baby’s car seat.

If you have a birth pool at home and it’s not already blown up, this is a good time to crack on with that job! Getting into the pool too early in labour can slow labour down and, for this reason, it may not be recommended. However, this isn’t necessarily a problem. It can make labour feel more tolerable, and what’s not to love about that? The buoyancy of the water can also help your partner to get into positions which help labour to progress, so even getting in early can be very beneficial.

Dealing with labour pain

It can be distressing seeing your partner in pain. Try to remember that keeping calm helps to keep her calm. Fear and stress makes people tense up, which makes pain feel worse, so aiming for a relaxing atmosphere, even if you’re feeling anxious inside, can make a big difference to you both. Anxiety increases the hormone adrenaline, which can slow down the labour hormone, oxytocin. So, take deep breaths and, if you still feel stressed inside, try to not show it on the outside! Think ‘fake it until you make it!’

Oxytocin can be boosted with loving touch. If your partner wants it, massaging her where she asks to be touched, stroking her, or hugging and kissing can help you to relax, and also help labour along. This is a magical time – you’re both about to meet the baby you made together! Connecting with each other can be beautiful, as well as having the practical effect of helping to strengthen contractions.


Early labour can be a frustrating time and sometimes can go on for days. Remind your partner that this is real labour, even if it starts and stops or isn’t yet dilating her cervix (if she chooses to have vaginal examinations). The contractions are still having an effect and need to happen to allow her body to dilate. Try to keep the atmosphere as relaxed as possible, as well as doing your final checklist of those practical essentials!