Labor Contractions

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How to Time Contractions while You are in Labor

“How far apart are your contractions?”

Fathers and labor partners have been told that timing labor contractions is their “job” during labor. Though it might seem like a no-brainer task, it can be tricky to time labor contractions accurately. Not to mention, do you know how often to time contractions? Or how to tell if your labor is progressing? Or even if timing contractions will help you decide when to go to the hospital? Or if you are the laboring mother, how to distinguish between labor contractions and Braxton-Hicks or pre-labor contractions? Let’s get down to the answers once and for all!

What do labor contractions feel like?

This is one of the most common questions I hear from expectant mothers, especially if they are already experiencing frequent or intermittent Braxton-Hicks contractions. Labor contractions differ from other types of contractions in the following ways:

  • Labor contractions change over time – these contractions will become longer, stronger and closer together over several hours and up to a day or longer.
  • Labor contractions are accompanied by other possible signs of labor – including losing your mucous plug, having backache, nesting urges, and possible queasiness.
  • Labor contractions involve your whole body – unlike Braxton-Hicks contractions that are exclusively in your belly, labor contractions can be felt in your back, lower and upper abdomen, thighs, hips and pelvic floor.
  • Labor contractions alter mental awareness – as the mother progresses into active labor, labor contractions require so much effort that she appears to go off to another place. She cannot converse well in between contractions and does not make eye contact. I call this phenomenon in labor “going to the birth planet.”

How do you time contractions?

Partners should make the following record of labor contractions:

  1. Duration – how long is each contraction lasting from beginning to end? A typical contraction in early labor is about 30 seconds long.
  2. Interval – how far apart are the contractions? This is recorded by timing beginning at the start of the first contraction, record the duration of that contraction, continue to record the rest period and then stop recording at the start of the next contraction. Or an easy way to remember is to time contractions from start to start.

When should you start timing labor contractions?

A good rule of thumb is to start recording contractions when the mother is first aware that these waves she is getting are rhythmic and repetitive. This gives you a baseline or a sense of where contractions are starting from. You may only record contractions for about an hour or so. If contractions are still mild and far apart, partners can put your watch and notes away and do whatever you would normally do at the time of day. If it is in the middle of the night or late evening, be sure to try to sleep. You will need to conserve your energy for active labor!

When should we go to our place of birth?

Unless you have a medical reason to be at your place of birth sooner, most parents can safely wait until the 4-1-1 rule which is:

4 – Contractions are 4 minutes or less apart

1 – Lasting for 1 minute in duration

1 – For at least 1 hour or more

If you can safely wait until active labor until you go to the hospital or birth center, don’t forget to look for the signs of active labor which include not only the following 411 rule, but other possible signs of labor as well as “going to the birth planet.”

How can you tell if labor is progressing?

Remember that labor itself will change over time. Labor can take as few as a few hours and up to a few days. But contractions over time, will get longer stronger and closer together. Mothers will have other signs and symptoms such as mucousy or bloody discharge and going to the “birth planet” as labor progresses. If contractions are mild and not changing for several hours, you can be reassured that you can safely stay home for awhile as you watch for more changes.

Be on your guard however if this is your second or later baby. Labor is known to progress more rapidly with births after your first one and can be much faster overall. Some mothers prefer to get to their place of birth sooner but still walk, be mobile and wait for changes.

Be watching for the completion of our online childbirth class as well as the best breathing techniques to use for labor! Are you hearing more about posterior babies? Get ready for the latest on turning posterior babies!

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