*please be aware this is just my thoughts on labor, not scientifically backed by any research.
When pregnant you’ll hear a lot of talk about ‘false labor’, and ‘prodromal labor’ and other terms that basically equate to ‘you won’t be having your baby as soon as you hoped’. And as your pregnancy progresses you may actually experience these things. It is a frustrating situation for all involved. But it is also normal, and natural.
Here are some personal examples:
With my 1st baby I went to the hospital 3 weeks before his actual birth, believing I was in early labor and that since it was a bit early (I was 35 weeks pregnant at this point), I wanted to just make sure everything was OK. Once in triage I was checked for leaking fluids and I was shown to be ‘intact’, my water had not broken… BUT I was contracting regularly and they were of a somewhat concerning strength, and my cervix was 6cm dilated. I actually had a few different nurses and midwives tell me that I was between 4 and 6 centimeters in the next day while they kept me over night, so while there is some difference in interpretation based on who is checking, I believe that the determination to keep me at the hospital was well founded… however they were not going to ‘help me out’ by encouraging the baby to be born because it was still a bit early for him gestationally. I was actually sent home the next day with instructions to return quickly should anything change… and nothing changed, for 3 WEEKS… but it was early so I was actually ok with this.
With my 2nd baby I was admitted against my will because I had high fluid and my baby had a long umbilical cord and they were worried that my contractions (the same ones I’d had for the last few weeks with no change in strength or duration) would cause my bag of waters to break and my child would die from prolapsed cord before I could return to the hospital. My contractions did change my cervix, but they never brought my daughter down, leading me to believe that I was not in ‘active’ labor. She was born by c-section for cord prolapse after the hospital based midwife broke my water to progress my labor (which wasn’t necessary considering neither of us was in any danger).
With my 3rd baby I did things differently but that didn’t make my body react differently. I chose to birth my child at home, but my midwife (the closest one to my location at the time) lived 3 hours away from my home. One Saturday morning I called her to inform her that I was having contractions that seemed to be building in strength and duration and that she should consider coming to me (thinking by the time she arrived 3 hours later I’d be in need of her)… HOWEVER, I spent that afternoon walking alone around the shared back yard of my neighborhood with regular contractions that actually seemed to be going away instead of building or getting stronger. Once the midwife arrived and saw the state of things she actually left to attend another birth and came back to me having been contraction free for the duration of her other birth. I was so disappointed! She drove the three hours home having delivered a baby that she hadn’t even known was coming, to my supposed birth. A full week later she made it to my birth about an hour before my baby was born.
With my 4th baby a week before her birth I called the midwife to ask her what she felt about the contractions I was having, she came, her assistant came, I wasn’t sure yet if they should be there, but felt comfort in knowing they wouldn’t have to fight traffic or wake up in the middle of the night to come to me and would already be there when things really picked up. Well they went home after an entire night of me having regular strong contractions that were just not doing anything good enough to bring that baby out. On the recommendation of my midwife my husband and I did some things to encourage the contractions to strengthen after everyone had gone home, and strengthen they did… so we called the midwives back and they had only JUST gotten home… I felt terrible when for the second time in one day I had to send them home, or rather they gave me the news that they were going home, which I knew was happening when things totally STOPPED after they had arrived. They also put me on a modified bed-rest for a day and said I shouldn’t try anything to get the contractions to build again. It had been fruitless and embarrassing for me anyway, I wasn’t about to do a thing. An entire week went by and then one morning while cooking an egg a contraction hit me so strong that there really wasn’t a doubt about it being labor, and two hours later I was holding a baby in my arms.. one midwife made it as the baby was coming out, the other shortly after my daughter made her appearance.
My point here is that it is pretty darn normal to experience some contractions that don’t actually produce a baby the way other contractions will. BUT is this not labor? My body was certainly working some detail out… I was working, I was miserable during some of those more intense contractions, I was by all means laboring… but I didn’t labor to the tune of a baby that day, or even the next day, and at some point with all my babies I stopped laboring and didn’t start again for quite a long time (with the exception of my c-section birth).
I recently read an article about telling women bluntly that they are not in labor when they are experiencing what I have experienced in each and every one of my births… but I don’t think that is an accurate statement. That IS labor… however it is not a part of labor that brings baby down and out, it is not the exciting climax of labor that produces the first sighting of an infant long-awaited by parents, midwives, and others who just want a glimpse at the cuteness of a newly born child.
I’m not saying that it isn’t important to be blunt with a mama who is laboring, that her labor isn’t at that point producing the hoped for outcome; birth. HOWEVER, is it right to tell her she is having ‘false labor’ or that she isn’t experiencing labor at all? I don’t think that is right either, and this is where my theory comes in.
I hypothesize, that a laboring woman will labor on and off several times throughout her pregnancy, we already know that the uterus contracts throughout all of pregnancy, so why would we say that some of those contractions are labor, and some are not? Why would we try to draw a hard and fast line between contractions that produce the first sight of baby and those which will not, because in my mind all those contractions are serving a purpose specifically designed to further the process toward birth.
From the First trimester cramping, when the uterus is stretching to accommodate a growing baby, and to stretch ligaments and other things to ready for a baby that is only getting bigger…
To Second Trimester cramping and tightening which causes the uterus, such an amazing organ, to strengthen, stretch to accommodate a still growing baby, and ready itself for the big event which is coming in a few months.
If you were preparing for a marathon you wouldn’t sit on the couch every day eating bonbons and watching t.v. Training would begin months in advance, strengthening and toning muscles that will be used for the race… the same is true of the Uterus, strength training is continual, only you don’t have to be aware that it is happening to have it happen. The uterus in many cases will just do the job it was created for without any hitches or conscious effort.
In the third trimester before birth a woman will experience more strength training in her uterus, sometimes this will seem to be progressing toward the birth of a baby and then slow down and stop only to leave the woman and her birth team disappointed that it didn’t bring forth the awaited child… but does this mean she isn’t laboring?
I BEG to be allowed to say that labor is an extension of pregnancy, just another part of the entire process and should be looked at, not as a separate event but a part of the original event (pregnancy). Should we tell a woman she is ‘not in labor’… I don’t believe so. I believe this woman is in labor, she has been for her entire pregnancy… BUT that doesn’t mean that baby is coming today.
Normally I don’t like telling people their nouns are wrong… but in birth I feel like clarity is hard to come by, and is also important to strive toward.
The disappointment of ‘wasting’ a midwife or doula’s time weighs heavily on the heart of a woman who has just been told she is not ‘in labor’. She is embarrassed for having believed something about herself (the one person she should be able to trust about these things) and is then told by an outside party that her body lied to her… therefore letting her down. And who is to blame? The laboring woman… no one else can take that blame, and no one could convince her that it wasn’t hers to take.
So while I’ve mulled this over for some time, I think I’ve come up with the answer to the question you may all be asking.
“What do you say to a woman who will not likely give birth soon?”
First soon is irrelevant, soon could mean anything, it could mean in a week, or in a few minutes… soon isn’t a good word either.. but understanding the nature of the question my reflection leads me to this.
“This will be disappointing, you are working so hard to bring that baby out into your arms, but I don’t think it is quite time yet. I’m going to go home, but I want you to call me AS SOON as anything changes. I don’t want you having that baby without me here!”
Looking over my own experiences I remember the words from my midwife at my first birth… she was SO concerned about sending me home and possibly having labor pick up FAST that it never occurred to me to believe that she was telling me I had ‘false labor’ or that my labor wasn’t ‘real’… she simply put the focus on how worried she was that I might not make it back in time when things really did pick up… with that to focus on I wasn’t disappointed in my body, I was happy to be given the hope that my baby was going to come soon and probably fast.
My body hadn’t failed me in that first labor, it was prepping for a big event, and would go on to perform perfectly when the time came. But in my other situations I spent a good portion of time crying.. partially because I was actually post dates with the 3rd and 4th babies, but partly because I didn’t trust my body to tell me when I was in labor, because the professionals told me I wasn’t. In retrospect, as a mother I wish I had sent them home, instead of holding out hope that things would pick up again, I wish I had just told them to go home and I’d call them back when and if they did pick up, but I was embarrassed and scared that I’d send them home and call them right back, which is exactly what happened one of those times, but still didn’t produce the child from my womb.
As a birth worker I feel like the decision should be the mothers… I feel that she should be the one to tell me when to come and when to go, but not all mothers (like me) are going to be honest with themselves about the ‘going’ if the baby hasn’t been born. So I’m going to vow not to tell a woman she isn’t in labor, but rather that the labor she is experiencing isn’t quite the baby producing kind, and that perhaps she should rest, or do something enjoyable to take her mind off from it awhile, and call me back as soon as things pick up a bit, leaving a tiny bit of urgency in my voice so she knows I think it will not be long, even if the reality is that it may be an entire week later.
Have a Cherished Birth.