Early Labour - What is it? How does a doula help?

Of all the potential benefits to having a doula support you through your labour and baby's birth, one of my favourite reasons can be summed up in two words: early labour. It's an idea that seems easy to understand, but I like unpacking it for my clients, to really give a full idea of how I can help, and why that will become so important for them later on.

Labour and birth are divided into three stages: the first stage, during which your uterus contracts and your cervix dilates, is made up of a few sections (this is where it can get a little bit confusing). Early labour occurs during the first part of the first stage, when the rushes (contractions) are just beginning, and you may or may not feel discomfort or pain. The latter parts of the first stage are active labour, transition, and complete, but they are topics for another day.

What's important to remember, from a doula's support perspective, is that early labour is the only time when you will likely not be offered hands-on support or guidance. Hospitals will admit women when they reach active labour, which is confirmed by a vaginal exam that shows 3-4cm dilation, and midwives will come to a home birth at the same time. While this system is great for offering support at the time that active labour gets into full swing, it means that a labouring woman is on her own for, on average, 6-12 hours before she can benefit from the help of someone who is comfortable and skilled in providing comfort measures and knowledge of labour.

I point this out to clients because I believe that those hours of early labour are an important time: your body is learning how to work with the contractions, and the hormones that will provide relief and progress are beginning to work on your body. It is an excellent time to rest, though the excitement of seeing your baby very soon can make it difficult for some moms. 

As a doula, I arrive to provide hands-on support throughout early labour. In fact, I have yet to attend a birth where I wasn't needed until active labour, which suggests the real need that most labouring moms have for support during this crucial time. I think that when women feel supported, comfortable, and in control during these hours, they manage well as labour progresses to its more intense moments. I can only say this anecdotally, of course, but studies looking into the effects of continuous support by a doula reach similar conclusions. 

I love that I get to be with my clients, often one-on-one, during this time. Whether it's using massage, or watching a funny movie together, it's easy to relax into the labour when you have both physical support, and the knowledge that a doula brings to reassure you that everything is going well. Starting your labour out right means passing through early labour as comfortable and relaxed as you can manage, and it's a wonderful time to feel the effects of a doula's presence.