Now that we have gone over what to do in early labor, you may be wondering what’s next. You might be thinking, “How will I know once I’m in active labor, and what do I do once I’m there?” These are great questions that a lot of women have, so I wanted to break it down for you so that you will know what to expect and what options are available to you at that point so you can make the best choices for you and your baby.
So What Is Active Labor?
Active labor is when your cervix has dilated to 4 – 7 centimeters, and your contractions are lasting for 45 to 60 seconds long, they are 3 to 5 minutes apart, and this has been a consistent pattern for at least an hour. You will notice a difference when you enter active labor because your contractions will get stronger, and they will require more of your focus and attention. I promise, when you’re in active labor, you will know!
If you’re wondering at what exact point you are entering into active labor and are no longer in early labor, it’s when your contractions are at 5-1-1. 5-1-1 means that your contractions are at least five minutes apart, each contraction is one minute long, and this has been consistent for at least one hour straight.
5-1-1 is usually when doctors will tell you to go to the hospital. However, I will say from my experience (after going to hundreds of births) that it’s a much better idea to stay at home as long as possible until things have really picked up. Why? Because staying at home until you have reached at least 4-1-1 or even better 3-1-1 reduces your chances significantly of having more interventions, including a c-section. At home, you can also eat and drink whatever you please, and you aren’t limited to one room or have to be monitored the whole time, etc. So when you talk to your doctor or your midwife, they want you to be at least at 5-1-1 before you come in. If you are not quite at that point, they will send you home because you are still in early labor.
What Does Active Labor Feel Like?
In early labor, things shouldn’t be that intense, so you should be able to walk and talk through your contractions as you feel cramp-like sensations slowly building. Active labor is when you recognize a pattern with your contractions, they aren’t going away, and they are becoming more intense as time passes. They usually begin with a dull, low pain that then builds and gets stronger. It’s like a wave; it rises and gets more difficult until it reaches it’s peak and then falls and fades away.
In active labor, a lot of women say that they feel contractions starting in their lower abdomen (like menstrual cramps or gas pain) and that it builds and wraps around their belly to their lower back. Some women feel the start of their contractions in their lower back, and they ache in their pelvis and their legs. Everyone is different, but some of this can be attributed to the position of your baby. If you are feeling all of your contractions in your lower back (“back labor”), that more than likely means that your baby is facing OP (occiput posterior). OP is when the back of your baby’s head (the occiput) is pressing firmly against your pelvis/sacrum. Ouch! When bone and bone are hitting each other, it can cause major pain, and that’s what back labor is. This is why positioning and changing your positions is so important during labor. That way, you can help your baby be in the OA position (occiput anterior) for an easier labor and delivery.
How Long Does Active Labor Last?
Boy, if I could tell women how long their labors would last, I would be a billionaire! Unfortunately, there really isn’t a magic number since every woman labors differently, but I can tell you this; on average active labor lasts 6 to 8 hours. Remember, this is not including early labor, transition, or pushing. But we have seen cases where women who are in active labor go as fast as 30 minutes and others go up to 10 hours or more. This is why I think physicians’ expectation for progress during active labor (1 cm dilation per hour) is a bit ridiculous. Some women can achieve that goal and then some while others need more time. But if you have gotten to the hospital too soon and you are not dilating at least half that rate, your doctor may prescribe Pitocin.
If this is your second, third, or fourth child, your active labor phase will more than likely be much faster than your first labor. Subsequent labors and births can be half the time and active labors for second and third babies on average last between 1 to 4 hours long. However, if you’re going to be induced and take Pitocin, this phase may go even faster, but if you’ve decided to get an epidural, things can be much slower. Having them both causes each woman to react differently so it could be fast, slow, or cause your labor to refuse to progress.
Now that you know what to expect from active labor, here are some tips to help you get through it to the next phase!
6 Tips on What to Do During Active Labor
1. Change Positions & Move
Things have now picked up, so it’s time to get moving! Now that you are in active labor and your contractions are more effective, the more you move, the faster things go. Changing positions at least every hour, preferably 30 minutes, is ideal for helping baby descend and put more pressure on your cervix to help it open/dilate. Go for a walk, climb the stairs, sway your hips from side-to-side to help open your pelvis, or even better, do some squats or side lunges to get baby lower. There are tons of positions that you can do. Just don’t over-tire yourself since you still have the transition phase and pushing stage coming up.
If you’re not sure what positions to do, here is an excellent graphic that includes several options:
Once you have gotten to the hospital or birthing center (hopefully at 4-1-1 or 3-1-1), you want to continue changing positions since they help ease the pain of labor, and they help speed up the process. Even though you’ll need to be monitored, you should still be able to move to help your labor progress.
During active labor, you can choose to get an epidural or other pain medication. If you decide to get an epidural or other pain medication, it is still important for you to move. Yes, you will not be able to get out of bed, but changing positions every half hour or so from your left side, to your right side to sitting up in bed is necessary. It is really important to continue to help baby rotate and move down into your pelvis, and movement is the best way to do that. Laying in one position for too long can cause things to stall and “fail to progress.”
2. Stay Nourished & Hydrated
As I noted in what to do in early labor, staying nourished and hydrated in active labor is just as important. You need that fuel to keep going. If you are still at home, you will have access to all of your snacks and beverages that keep you feeling good and strong. At the birthing center, you can continue to eat and drink since it’s been proven that women should continue to eat and drink during labor. But in the hospital, more than likely, you will be restricted and only allowed to eat ice chips. If you’re lucky, they will get you a sugar-free popsicle. Again, another reason to stay home as long as possible so you can continue to have fuel for energy.
3. Use Comfort Techniques
Whether you want to have a natural birth or a medicated birth, it’s a good idea to know some comfort measures for labor. Why? Sometimes epidurals fade, and sometimes they don’t work (I’ve had a few clients where their epidurals didn’t take) and other pain medications only dull the contractions and don’t take the pain away. Learning some techniques to help you get through labor can make it much easier for you and can speed up the process. And active labor is when things get intense, so this is a great time to use the relaxation techniques you learned in your childbirth education class(es).
Here are some comfort techniques that can help you through active labor and also through transition:
- Breathing: Taking big deep breaths (with your diaphragm) or you can do accelerated chest breathing (hee-hee, hee-hee blow)
- Positions: Walking, sitting on a birth ball, climbing stairs, “slow dancing” with your partner while he/she rubs your back, hands-and-knees, knees-to-chest, sitting up, leaning over, rock in a rocking chair, lunging, squatting, supported squat
- Touch: Massage, counter pressure (double hip squeeze or pressing your sacrum), acupressure points
- Hydrotherapy: Getting in the shower or a bath is fantastic. Again, generally, you shouldn’t stay in the tub for more than 1 ½ hours at a time since it can slow labor. It’s best to get in the tub when you are in transition. But if you have been laboring for a while and need a break and want to submerge your belly underwater, you can have your support person or doula pour water over your belly during contractions.
- Visualization: Imagine being at the beach or in your favorite place. Also, you could visualize each contraction like a wave rising and falling, or imagine your cervix opening and blooming like a flower. Our minds are very powerful, so visualization can help.
- Vocalization: Making noise can help and make you feel better too. Moaning, saying chants or mantras, or singing songs are helpful. If you find yourself making high-pitched cries, try to bring the tone down to deep belly sounds. This helps you breathe from your abdomen, staying more centered, and less anxious.
- Heat & Cold: A heating pad or cold packs on your lower back or belly is so relieving and can help with the discomfort. A cold washcloth on your forehead is also very refreshing.
- Sensory Distraction: You can play music to create a fun or relaxing environment, light candles (or have electric candles if you are in the hospital), or look at a focal point to distract yourself and stay focused. Counting can also help and be a good ritual to get through each contraction, aromatherapy to ease the pain/ increase contractions and help with nausea, etc.
- Hypnotherapy: If you take a childbirth hypnosis course (like Hypnobabies or Hypnobirthing), you can use those tools during your labor to really relax.
4. Go to the Bathroom
Going to the bathroom at least once an hour is a good idea because it makes sure that your bladder is not blocking baby’s descent. A full bladder can hold baby’s head up, which then causes you not to dilate as fast since your baby’s head is not putting the pressure your cervix needs to dilate. So you want to continue drinking your fluids and using the restroom every hour to keep baby low.
5. Get Ready to Go
Remember, don’t be in a rush to head to the hospital or birth center. Active labor can still take hours, and it’s a lot better to complete the majority of that at home so you can reduce your chances of feeling rushed and needing unnecessary interventions. At the same time, don’t take too long because I don’t want you to have your baby in the car. Listen to your body and get ready to go when your body says it’s time. (4-1-1 or 3-1-1 — more information on when to go to the hospital in labor.)
6. Have Good Continuous Support
Labor is tough. That’s why they call it labor. Having positive, continuous support is vital during active labor. Women need it to be able to continue. Make sure that you have people around you during active labor that are going to support your choices, help you have a positive experience, and help you get through to the next phase. Positivity and loving words can encourage you to keep going so your support person can say, ” You’re doing a great job. I’m so proud of you. You’re relaxing your body so well.”
If the people that you are planning on having with you during labor aren’t sure the best ways to support you or know what options are available to you throughout labor, then you may want to consider hiring a doula. You and your support person do not have to go through this alone. Learn more about what a doula is HERE.
What was active labor like for you? Did you use any of these tips to help you through it? We want to know! Share your experience with us in the comments below. 🙂