In the past, it was the partner’s job, as coach, to time each contraction with a stopwatch. I still have my old list of “...8:27...8:39...8:45...8:54...”from my first labour in 1983. The fixation on time has continued. Now, there are labour apps that will track your contractions.
Instead, I encourage my clients to let go of actively timing at the beginning of the birthing process. I think timing contractions is too simplistic a gauge of how labour is progressing. It makes you focus on an external reality and lose touch with your inner rhythm, your inner knowledge. It can also make you fixate on how long things have been happening which, in turn, can lead to frustration or impatience.
Take me for example. There I was, waiting for my first labour to start. I was 10 days overdue. On paper, it looked like I had been in labour for a week. Contractions were every three minutes - sixty seconds long. I thought I was going through the longest labour on record. But I was still able to walk and talk through each “contraction.” I was really just having prelabour tightenings. But my fixation on timing had made me exhausted and mentally drained even before the true labour began. If I’d been able to talk with someone a few times a day during that last week, someone who understood the logic of the body and the rhythm of labour, I might have been able to rest more, and been more emotionally capable during the true labour.
Now, when I’m working as a doula, I try to help people deny the niggly pre labour stuff, the "end of pregnancy stuff." If you think of the early symptoms like the start of a period then you may be able dismiss the first signs of labour (the “forget it” stage). Sure, we talk on the phone during this period, but you certainly don’t need to time anything. If you only attend to the active part of labour, where you can no longer deny it, it will feel like your labour is shorter. A client this year denied things so skillfully throughout the day that she asked me, "Do you really think I'm in labour?" when I arrived at her house. It was only 5 hours later that her first baby was born.
I watch the momentum of labour, the woman’s movement, her face. Is she flushed? Are her knees bent? Is she rising onto her tiptoes at the peak of a contraction? How much clothing can she stand to wear? What sounds is she making? All these things tell me how her labour is progressing. But I’m not the “keeper of the wisdom.” In prenatal visits, I share all these secrets with clients.
I just love it when I get a phone call from a dad, "She’s doing that thing you showed us on the chair. The contractions only started half an hour ago, but I think you should come over." I can hear her low moans in the background. It’s so great to know that he “gets it,” and hasn’t had to rely on timing contractions to determine the quick progression of her labour.
If you truly MUST write down the contractions (for the baby book), do it. It can be a fun way to keep busy during early labour. But it’s only good at showing you exactly when active labour starts. When does that happen? Well, the moment a woman says, “Put that pen/iphone down and rub my back!” she has reached the start of active labour.
Another great indicator of the start of active labour is to play a game of cards. I was at the hospital with a woman who was being induced. “When will I know that it’s REAL?” she asked. “Well, when you throw your cards at me,” I said. It was only another half hour later that she threw the cards down. “Now, I know what you mean,” she laughed, as she jumped out of the bed. Ahaa! She had entered active labour.
So, here’s a great way to access your instinctive side - take off your watch, turn all the clocks around, put away your iPhone, and feel the rhythm of contractions. For example, you can lean on the kitchen counter for a contraction, then pick a walking circuit around the house. You might have to walk three circuits before another contraction/wave comes. After an hour, you may only be able to complete two circuits before the wave comes again. You will know “in your body” the rhythm of labour, and won’t need to focus on time any more. Once you are able to flow with the labour, this will encourage a trancelike state (endorphin release!), and help you go deeper into labour. But, always remember to keep in touch with me and your midwife or doctor. I'll come when you need me. Together, we’ll know that it’s time to go to the hospital (or when to call the midwife to come for a home birth), when you can’t walk another circuit.
Every labour is totally different. Some women follow the textbook and have contractions which increase in length, strength and frequency. Other women can have contractions which are fast and furious from the start. On rare occasions, some women find that their contractions are “pokey” all the way through. Labour is not a linear process; it ebbs and flows as the body and your baby requires. I will help you navigate this rhythm. When I talk to you on the phone, I will be thinking about how many times you have to stop talking (i.e. have a contraction/wave) within a 10-minute period. In early labour there might only be one every 10 minutes. Generally, in active labour, 3-4 contractions will occur in each 10 minute period. The sooner you can let go of time, let go of your “thinking brain,” the sooner you will experience the timeless rhythm of labour. You will be able to cope much better.
So, I encourage you to trust your body’s rhythm, drawing guidance from your chosen caregivers. Talk to your doctor or midwife in advance about phone contact in early labour. Remember, you’ll be talking with me on the phone A LOT in early labour, and I will come whenever you need me. My arrival isn’t based on time, but on your need for extra support. Or your partner’s need for support! Then...I’ll be there.