The Onset of Labor

by Denise Spatafora

The birth of your child is nothing less than an extraordinary feat of nature that involves an intricate sequence of events. Every pregnancy is different, and every childbirth is different. Yet most follow the same prescribed path of what physically unfolds in the body.

The Onset

The onset of labor is the official point at which labor begins. It marks the beginning of contractions or other signs that the baby is ready and your body is warming up. Think of it as an orchestra that is getting ready to play a symphony, and all of the sections are warming up and coordinating how to play in harmony together-the string instruments, the percussion section, and so on.

A variety of signals can indicate the onset of labor. They can include the breaking of the amniotic sac, the release of the mucus plug, or contractions or cramps that have a consistent pattern. If the amniotic sac ruptures, which is also called having your "water break," it can show up either like a slow leak or wetting your pants. It's not a gushing of water. Sometimes it is accompanied by a popping sound.

Your water doesn't always break during the onset of labor. For my first child, my water didn't break until I actually gave birth. When your mucus plug breaks, that is referred to as "bloody show." This will look like a thick, stringy, blood-tinged discharge. You may lose your mucus plug earlier than at the onset of labor. If you lose it during the onset of labor, however, there will be blood in it. You may also experience a backache, an upset stomach, or diarrhea.

Some women report a sensation of warmth in the abdomen as labor begins. If you feel that you have begun labor, you will want to connect with your doctor or midwife and tell him or her what you are experiencing to determine whether this is truly the onset and to set up your plan of communication from this point forward. I remember losing my mucus plug, and it had some blood in it on my underwear. It seemed like extra discharge, and I wasn't sure whether this was "it," so when I called my midwife, she confirmed that labor had begun.

The onset period can have a wide time span. Some people include this period within Stage 1 of labor, as we do here, but it is important to make the distinction so that we can dispel the misunderstanding and the "myth" of the fifty-hour labor. For example, when I lost my mucus plug with bloody show, I did not move into the next phase of early labor, where dilation began, until about forty hours later. Technically, however, I was in labor, but I was not experiencing pain. I felt the sensations of my body warming up for the delivery. I had some mild cramps, but I was completely able to walk around, go food shopping, and eat heartily (I remember having a yummy lamb curry stew). I also relaxed, watched a movie, and slept through the night.

You may be able to do household chores, walk, take a bath, sleep, or gather your things if you are giving birth in a hospital or a birthing center. This is the time to nourish yourself and store up your energy. So, when people tell you their birth stories and say that they were in labor for "fifty hours," they are not speaking responsibly. They are not differentiating the various phases of labor. Instead, they are unconsciously instilling fear in you. You might hear these stories and think that you will not be able to endure that amount of time. But the reality behind this conversation is very different.

For me, the time from the onset of labor to giving birth to my child lasted a total of almost fifty hours: the first thirty-eight to forty hours were the onset, a comfortable warming-up period; Stage 1 was about nine hours of a mixture of easy, intense, and very intense sensations; Stage 2 lasted about three hours and was also a mixture of mild, intense, and powerful sensations; and Stage 3, comfortable and simple, lasted about
thirty minutes.

Don't get attached to the possible time frames as you read through this section. I just want you to
understand how long it may take for the baby to descend and be born, and how you will assist your body with your thoughts, emotions, spirit, and heart. So, as you get closer to your due date, don't watch your body as if you're waiting for a pot of water to boil. Try to relax, observe, and feel; let your labor unfold.