Do you know how many times a week I get a phone call from a mom freaking out, not knowing if she's in labor or if she should go to the hospital? So many times. Women that know I'm a Doula and aren't even my clients are on a constant quest for advice about the proper timing to leave to a hospital or birthcenter birth.
The first tip that Childbirth Educators always give is counting how long your contractions are. For first births, we generally tend to give a 4-1-1 or 5-1-1 rule. When your contractions are 4 minutes apart, lasting for one minute long, for at least an hour, it's likely that you're in active labor, and it's a good time to head to the hospital. That being said, it's always important to remember to pay attention to everything that's happening, and not just the numbers. Let's take a closer look with these three tips.
I often have women call me and say "but I don't know when to start counting, or finish counting!" If you're having that problem, I would highly recommend stepping away from the phone app/watch/clock, and going to try and get some rest. If your not sure exactly when the contractions stop and start, then you probably aren't far enough along to time them yet. Try to rest in the meantime, that will help your body naturally progress, as it should. Our first goal in labor, although it seems counterintuitive, is to try and stop labor. If we can't stop it, then we know it's the real thing. So if you aren't sure if your having contractions, drink a glass of wine, and try to lie down for a while. In time it will become clear if it's "the real deal" or if it's just practice contractions that are helping to tone your uterus, for the big day.
Are your contractions close together, but it's only been a few minutes? Did they jump to be very close together right from the start? If it hasn't been a full hour of consistent contractions, I wouldn't jump to make any sudden moves. While it's true that there are some women who give birth very fast, those women are the minority and it's important to really listen to your body and see what else is going on. A labor that starts with contractions that are very close together can give us some insight into what is really happening with that mother and baby. Often, contractions that are 2 or 3 minutes apart right off the bat, with no easing into it, are contractions that are trying to accomplish something other than dilation. Many mothers will be frustrated by contractions like this, that don't let up and exhaust them quickly, but upon being examined vaginally, will find they are only one or two centimeters dilated. These types of contractions are a wonderful reminder that while dilation is important, there are many other things to consider in birth, and a long, drawn out, painful, early labor can be due to positioning of your baby. It's a good idea to head on over to spinningbabies.com and see what you can do to help yourself, in this situation, or ask your doula for guidance.
Are the contractions very close together, but pretty simple to get through? Make sure to keep an eye on all aspects of the Labor. How are you coping through contractions? Are they a breeze? Or are they making you stop in your tracks. Again, contractions that come frequently, but aren't that painful can be signs of other "yellow flags" in labor, not danger, but our body making us aware that something else might need to happen before the baby can come, and it's working on it. Try to focus in on baby every time you have a contraction, and ask her to work with you. Remind her that you are excited to meet her and everyone is ready outside, waiting!
While these tips are usually pretty accurate across the board (with little tweaks everywhere, of course,) it's important to remember that the first rule about labor is no one really understands it fully, and it is different, to a certain extent, for everyone. This is where a lot of self-trust comes in. It's so important to listen to your body and yourself, and make decisions about leaving the house, based on that, as opposed to rules you've been taught. If you feel it's urgent to go to the hospital, because you think the baby is coming, but contractions are further apart, head on over to the hospital and just get it checked. Really trust yourself, because that's the key to a powerful, supported birth. If you're confident in your body's ability to birth, everyone around you will tap into that too.
Happy Birthing <3