Understanding the differences between these two phases of labor will help you to make a better decision about when to head to the hospital, birth location or call the midwife!
What does early labor look like?
Tips for early labor:
Strategies that you can use at home to help you cope during early labor include:
- Rest and sleep as much possible to conserve your energy and be ready for active labor.
- Distraction: cooking, organizing, get a mani/pedi, movie, games. Don’t exhaust yourself but do things that keep your mind occupied.
- Go for a walk to see if contractions intensify
- Eating and drinking
- Hydrotherapy – getting in the tub or shower.
What does active labor look like?
Labor times vary, but active labor averages between 1 – 12 hours. Contractions get closer together and can be anywhere from 5 to 3 minutes apart. During this phase of labor your contractions will get to the point where they are lasting about 1 minute in length or longer. You will dilate from about 6 cm to about 9 to 10 cm with complete effacement.
In active labor you are typically using all of your focus and energy to get through contractions. You are no longer able to talk during contractions and you have a very inward focus. You may feel less social, more serious and lose track of time. Your preference may be to rest and close your eyes in between every contraction to get a break before the next one begins. The intensity and potential pain level during active labor is greater than early labor. You may begin to vocalize, make noise or moan during your contractions which is a natural and helpful reaction. It is not uncommon to have a loss of appetite and sensitivity to smells. Modesty can also fly out the window at this point because what matters most to you is comfort.
Tips for active labor:
Take one contraction at a time. This is when you need continuous support from your partner, doula or whomever is your support team. Change positions at least every half hour alternating between upright and resting positions to stay comfortable while still encouraging labor progress.
Activities to help you cope during active labor:
- Breathing, relaxation and visualization
- Meditations or HypnoBirthing techniques
- Massage and touch
- Movement, walking, rocking, swaying and position changes
- Heat and cold therapy (hot pack, or cold washcloth)
- Drink and use the bathroom often
When to go to the hospital?
We often use the 4.1.1. or 5.1.1. rule of thumb as a guideline for when to go to the hospital. This refers to having contractions that are five minutes apart, lasting about one minute long, for at least one hour. While this can be a helpful guideline, it is important to know that timing contractions is only one tool than can be used to determine labor progress. Contractions that are five minutes apart do not automatically indicate active labor or the need to go to the hospital. Looking at the whole picture including the physical and emotional indicators mentioned above is wise.
Doulas spend time educating clients on this topic to help you have a smooth transition from home to hospital. We are always happy to talk with you and guide you during early labor to help you make the best decisions for you and your family.