Early Labor: What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You


Ready, set, baby time!!! Uh, not quite.

{A Guide For Early Labor With Your First Baby}

5:1:1 is a Load of S***

You’ve heard it, you’ve repeated it back, you’ve written it on a post-it note and stuck it to your refrigerator. Go to the hospital when your contractions are FIVE minutes apart, lasting ONE minute long, for at least ONE hour. While cute in its simplicity, 5:1:1 truly does a disservice for all you little mamas/people expecting your first babies.

It’s basically like waking up one morning and saying, “Huh. Today I think I’m gonna run a marathon.” That might not be a crazy thing to consider 1) if you’ve run a marathon before, and 2) if you actually own a pair of running shoes, or 3) if you’ve been actively training for the past several months to run a marathon. But if like me, your idea of exercise is walking from the couch to the fridge, waking up one morning and suddenly deciding to run 26 miles seems a little foolish.

Labor is a marathon. Whether you know it or not, its something your body will train itself for. Those training exercises, which doctors call “Braxton Hicks” contractions, are not the actual act of running the marathon. But they sometimes hurt! They feel real! Because they are real ~ just like a five-mile run is pretty real! earlylabor

  • Early labor involves regular contractions, usually noticeable and often painful, that wrap from your back around to your front.
  • You can tell early labor contractions from Braxton Hicks in that the back pain, pelvic pressure, belly tightening and period-like cramping happen all in one package.
  • Early labor contractions usually for 30-60 seconds, and anywhere from 5-15 minutes apart.
  • Early labor contractions are not related to you being hot, you just finishing peeing, you walking for a while or just after you’ve had sex.

*Once you are term (past 37 weeks), everything is healthy with you and the baby, and you are feeling the baby move regularly, you can go ahead and ignore any contractions that you have. I don’t care if they are every fifteen minutes or every three minutes, if they go away when you are lying down or they come stronger when you take a bath, or even if you lose what may or may not be your mucous plug. Anything like this that comes up, you can just say, “huh, that’s strange. My body must be getting ready to have a baby.”

You will have a baby. Not necessarily today, or even two weeks from now, but eventually. Remember, no one ever stays pregnant forever. If you want to be a control freak, then go for a walk. Try 30 minutes without stopping to go out to eat. Go swimming. Float in the pool on your back and feel, for a brief moment in time, your weightless self.  Here’s a crazy thought … make it your goal to have orgasms. Plenty of them. Then let it go.

I know a woman named Flor who has four kids, and every single one of them was born on a U.S. or Mexican holiday/day of remembrance, all of them after spontaneous labor. One’s birthday is Christmas, one’s is on 9/11, and one is on Cinco de Mayo, and one is on Dia de Los Muertos. The baby knows when the baby wants to be born.


{Image courtesy Whitney Patterson doula, by Red Plum Photography}

You will have plenty of contractions before the baby is born. You may have regular contractions for weeks. For two weeks before our daughter was born, at seven o’clock every night I would feel contractions every 10 minutes, usually when I was doing the dishes from dinner. Then I would go to bed and wake up still pregnant.

If you feel regular contractions all day (like for at least 8 hours) and you start to think something might be going on, don’t tell anyone other than your spouse/partner and your doula (and your doctor or midwife if you have any concerns or questions). Go for a walk, bake a lasagna to freeze for you and your spouse/partner after the baby is born, make cupcakes for your neighbor, or organize like a goddess.

When in doubt, walk.

When you get the slightest bit tired, rest. Watch a Netflix marathon of a show with every swear word and sex scene known to man. (Note: don’t worry, you’ll be able to do this after the baby comes too. Babies don’t understand swear words).

Lay in bed and kiss your partner. Have them rub your feet and tell you that you’re beautiful.

The contractions may stop, and totally go away, but you won’t be that bummed because you didn’t get too excited about it. Eventually the contractions won’t stop, and you will be moaning and groaning so much that you can’t deny that you are in labor. Don’t assume you are in labor until you go out in public (which I encourage you to) and start getting offers from random strangers who want to take you to the hospital[1].

Remember: First babies don’t (usually**) fall out, and if you feel like you might be 5 cm then you are probably 2, so give it some time. If you love going to the movies, go. If you love eating ice cream, eat it. Enjoy (enjoy being a relative term) your early labor. It’s the last time for several years that you can do whatever you want without having to think about another person first.


[1] And at that point you can do some public education, and tell them, “No thank you, I do not need to go to a hospital yet, because labor is not an emergency.” If they are overly concerned tell them that they can bring you some fuel for your walk. Fresh fruit smoothies are much appreciated.


  • This information does not replace professional care and advice during your pregnancy. If you are ever concerned about anything at all, contact your healthcare provider. 
  • **Every woman is different. Some women (rarely) will have a very fast labor with their first baby. These kinds of labors are quite unmistakeable … one minute you’re brushing your teeth and the next you don’t remember your middle name. THE FIRST RULE OF ALL … TRUST YOURSELF, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.

READ: The Last Days of Pregnancy: A Place of In-Between

Love, Kate


2 thoughts on “Early Labor: What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for putting that second disclaimer in at the end. Indeed, not all labors are the same, or even normal. For me, I never had contractions that wrapped from back to front — all the pain was up front from my transverse abs to my obliques, and only descended to my pubis at crowning. And I never had any warning labor pains in early labor. One minute I’m at the hospital for my regularly scheduled 37-week exam, rocking 2 cm dilation, and while still there, within 20 minutes I’ve dilated to 6 cm and thrown instantly into incredible pain with one straight contraction, full-blown labor, no let-up or wave pattern, oxygen mask slapped on, a nurse trying desperately to get an IV in my arm, and then suddenly a baby on my chest. I won’t even talk about the tearing. It wasn’t pretty. Precipitous labor is awful! Not nearly the “blessing” many women who labor for a while see it as. And that was my first! LOL I was scared out if my mind and had no reference point cause my case is definitely not the norm.

    Anyway, all that to say, I appreciate your willingness to mention that early labor may not be “the norm.” I think it’s good for all ladies to at least be educated in what precipitous labor looks like so that, in those rare cases, they at least have some understanding of what to expect. The physical recovery is a challenge (2 years for me), there is an element of PTSD related to following pregnancies, but the good news is, you now know what to expect and that everything does get better with time. 🙂

    • Thank you thank you thank you so much Alayna. I appreciate your story and your courage to tell it. We are all so different and that’s why following our instincts is such an important piece! Thanks again, Kate

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