Comfort Measures for Early Labor
As a doula, I support women during all types of birth. It doesn’t matter if they want to labor and birth without medication, want an epidural, are planning an induction, or are scheduling a repeat C-section, I am there to support them in whatever they decide. Recently I attended a comfort measures class with a few of my clients. This is a class I’ve been to several times, but you can NEVER learn this stuff too many times.
So, today I wanted to write a bit about some common comfort measures for labor. Generally comfort measures are something we talk about a lot when discussing unmedicated birth, however I like to remind my clients who are seeking an epidural that there will likely be some time before they are actually able to get their epidural where they will be laboring and will need comfort measures to some degree.
Early labor is usually defined as the part of labor where you are dilating from 0-6 cm. Early labor can range from a few hours to several DAYS. Most hospitals want to wait to administer epidurals when the laboring person is about 3 cm, which can take a surprisingly long time to achieve- this can be especially true for first time moms.
Trust me, I’ve personally been blindsided by this. When I attended my hospital-led birthing class, I was pregnant with my first and I very much remember thinking “Well, I’m having an epidural so I’ll be fine.” I went into labor with her around 4 in the afternoon on a Saturday and wasn’t able to get my epidural until early Sunday morning. I wasn’t familiar with comfort measures, or what “normal” labor felt like, so it was VERY challenging for me.
I hate to say this, but I’ve also made this mistake as a doula. Knowing my client was getting an epidural, I never discussed comfort measures or what normal timelines for early labor may be. As a result, there were several very long evenings where I felt pretty awful for not speaking to that part about labor. If I had, maybe the experience would have been different for them.
When we know better, we do better.
So, I urge you to read on and study up on these early labor comfort measures- even if you are the “I’m getting an epidural so I’ll be fine” momma! You may find them SUPER helpful in dealing with early labor pains.
Distraction is a pretty powerful tool. This can be useful during early labor when you’re still able to walk and talk through the contractions. Distraction can be watching a show, going for a walk, making a grocery list, packing your hospital bag, having a conversation with your partner, or doing something else you enjoy. Early labor can be super exciting and nerve-wracking, so it can be really hard to focus on something other than contractions and how they feel, but taking a little focus off of that and putting it onto something else can really help keep you calm during early labor.
If you are feeling unable to walk, talk, or focus on a distraction through contractions, a focal point, counting, or doing a similar inwardly-focused distraction method can be helpful.
Breathing is huge during labor. Often when we get stressed out or scared, breathing can become really shallow or fast which can increase the amount of stress hormones coursing through your body. Those pesky hormones can trick you into thinking you aren’t safe or that things aren’t normal, which switches on fight or flight response in the body. If you’re stressed it can translate to a bigger pain response. Taking time to slow your breathing, take deeper breaths, or finding a rhythmic breathing patterns can be both a distraction and a huge tool in calming your nervous system.
Walking does more than just distract from early labor contractions, it also uses gravity as an advantage by helping baby put more pressure on the cervix- which in turn helps you thin and dilate faster and promote labor. If you are unable to walk through contractions, use your partner or support person to lean on during the contractions and when they pass, get to walking again. It might be a stop-and-go endeavor, but can be a really great bonding experience and a fantastic way to get labor going in a positive direction.
Swaying and rocking is a common distraction for labor and a great way to calm yourself when contractions hit. You can rock or sway on a birth ball, which can help you manage pressure down on the cervix as well, while walking, while bent over and resting, and in many other positions. Rocking/swaying is also a great way to get baby to settle into the pelvis while taking some focus off of contractions. Again, another two-for-one!
Listen I know A TON of people do not want to be touched during labor (myself included), but having the right kind of touch can be a huge distraction when contractions hit. Ever stubbed your toe, collapsed to the ground, and started rubbing your foot? That’s a very reaction to pain, why is that? The nerve pathways for pain and touch travel the same way, however the sensation for touch travels faster than the one for pain- so when you rub an area that is hurt, it’s sending a distraction signal to your brain that can dull pain. Pretty cool, huh?
Touch and massage during labor has this same effect. So having your partner or support person massage your shoulders (not pat, sand, or rub), or you rubbing your belly, thigh, or something similar if you aren’t feeling being touched, can be a tremendous tool in managing labor contractions.
Acknowledge the Pain
Earlier I mentioned fight or flight. Often when something hurts, especially something that isn’t going away like contractions, we can get to a place where it doesn’t feel normal, right, or okay. This is sending the signal to your brain that something is wrong, which increases your stress hormones, restrict airways, and cause breathing to be fast and labored. All of these factors can increase sensations of pain. So rather than going to the freak-out place about contractions, acknowledge the pain.
“Ouch, this hurts. This is painful, but I know it’ll be over soon.”
“Well this really sucks and I’m not a fan of this pain, but it is temporary.”
“I’m in pain right now, but this is normal pain.”
Acknowledging the pain and how sucky it may be takes a lot of the POWER away from the pain and puts you in control of the situation. When you have more control, your stress hormones calm down and you can breathe a bit easier which leads to better pain management overall.
Reassurance and acknowledgement kind of go hand in hand. When you are able to acknowledge the pain, you are able to reassure yourself that it is normal and you aren’t dying- legit a thought I had several times. If you aren’t in a place to reassure yourself, having your partner or support person reassure you is super helpful as well.
Here are some great reassurance tools:
“I know you’re in pain right now, but this pain is normal. You are safe and strong.”
“This pain will be over in a few minutes, remember that this is temporary and it’s getting you one step closer to meeting your baby.”
“This is all happening for a reason. I know this hurts, but you are doing great.”
Reassurance is a very powerful tool, both in life and in labor.
Things like heat, pressure, and water can be a powerful distraction tool during labor. If you’re at home laboring, using a heating pad and placing heat on the source of pain can help manage the pain or distract from it. A warm bath can also be a powerful distraction tool. If you are at the hospital, you can use a rice sock to apply heat and pressure. Just ask your nurse to heat it up in the microwave and they should be more than happy to oblige! I keep one of these Warmies in my doula bag to heat up and use with clients. They also come in scents like lavender, which can also help calm you during labor.
Many people labor in birthing tubs, pools, the bath, or the shower. Sitting in the shower with warm water on your lower back is a very common method for relieving back labor pains. If you are at the hospital, you can definitely labor in water but many hospitals will not allow you to birth in water. If you require continuous fetal monitoring, ask your hospital if they have wireless fetal monitors. These can allow you to walk and labor in the tub while still allowing for the necessary monitoring.
Also, using counter-pressure like a double hip squeeze or sacral pressure can be a super helpful tool in managing contractions. You can also apply pressure and heat at the same time. I’ve been in many a birth where I’ve used my Warmie and applied pressure to low backs to relieve pain.
Knowing what labor may feel like or how to manage pain during labor is a common stressor for birthing people. I hope these 8 tips gave you some great tools to help keep you calm during those early labor pains!
Comfort measures for labor is one of MANY topics I’ll discuss in my new program, Birth Like a Mother, launching July 30th. If you found this helpful or want to know more about common pregnancy questions, labor, birth (including C-section, VBAC, and home), and postpartum recovery, sign up for the wait list for Birth Like a Mother and its sister program, Recover Like a Mother, for early access and an exclusive discount!