When you first feel the tightening of your belly, you might feel flooded with excitement or reservation about the hours ahead. Almost without a doubt, however, you will ask yourself, is this it? Often there are several hours, even several days where it is unclear whether or not labor has in fact begun. You may experience contractions only while walking, or only at night and then wake up in the morning with the realization that they have stopped entirely. Even without a stop and go labor, the time from the first contractions to the time you are holding your baby can be long. For that reason, my advice to every mother who thinks labor might be starting is the same, rest.
There are two kinds of endurance battles that the laboring woman must overcome, one physical, and one mental. The physical part of labor is the easier to imagine. Even if you cant imagine exactly what a contraction feels like, you can imagine that being kept up all night by being uncomfortable, often standing and walking to work with your labor would make you very tired. To rest yourself physically, try to take a nap. Your labor won't let you miss the birth of your baby. If you can't sleep, make sure you choose restful positions at least periodically throughout your labor.
I personally think that maintaining the mental endurance to last through childbirth is much more difficult. It can be frustrating not to make progress as fast as you want, especially if you are sent home from a hospital or birthing center. Also, the intensity of labor can be overwhelming if you don't have a plan for dealing with it. The most effective form of mental rest that I know of is distraction. At the beginning of labor your distraction might be watching a movie, baking your favorite treat, or taking a walk. You will want to come up with a list of ways to help you not to focus too much on you labor. You need to save the energy to focus for when the intensity increases.
Once your labor gets intense enough that it demands your attention, the method and purpose of distraction changes. You will need to focus on your labor and listen to what you body is telling you to do to help labor progress. It becomes the responsibility of your birth parter and or doula to distract you from the intensity of labor by overwhelming your brain with sensory information. Massage, music, scented lotion or essential oils all send information to your brain that will distract you from feeling the full intensity of your contractions. As labor progresses further, you will find you need your birth partner to used multiple distractions at once and that they need to be changed more often. You will find yourself switching positions, getting in and out of the shower or tub, turning on and off music, and changing what kinds of touch you wish to receive. All of this is helping you to cope with the growing intensity and frequency of your contractions.
It is understandably difficult not to get so excited that labor is starting that you stay up all night timing contractions and wondering what the next day will bring. However, the mental and physical exhaustion this will create if your labor is long will make it difficult for you towards the end of your labor. If you do what you can to rest and to keep your mind occupied on other things while you are waiting to see if this is indeed the real thing, you will have more energy to get through the marathon that is labor and more mental energy to focus on the important work of bringing you baby into the world.