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Active Labor: Signs, Symptoms, and Coping Strategies

Realizing you are in active labor is so exciting (and so painful)! I will discuss active labor signs, symptoms, as well as tips to help you deal with those difficult contractions and hopefully speed things up when possible!

As a general overview childbirth is broken up into three stages of labor:

Stage 1 starts from the onset of labor all the way until the cervix has completely dilated to the full 10 cm needed for vaginal delivery. This stage includes:

  • Early Labor: The time labor starts until the cervix has dilated to 3 cm. This is usually the longest part of labor, usually 8-12 hours. Contractions may be irregular and tend to be mild. Contractions last between 30-45 seconds and are 5-20 minutes apart.
  • Active Labor: Dilation goes from 3cm- 7cm. Contractions are fairly regular and are 3-5 minutes apart and 60-75 seconds long.
  • Transition: dilation from 7cm-10cm. Contractions are very regular, 2.5-3 minutes apart and 60-90 seconds long.

Stage 2 begins after full 10 cm dilation until the baby has been delivered.

Stage 3 of labor is the shortest and is the process of delivering the placenta.

Now that we have the basics of the stages of labor broken down we will focus on active labor.

Physical Signs

  • You will be dilated between 6 and 8 cm.
  • Contractions will be regular about 3-5 minutes apart and lasting around 1 minute.
  • Walking and talking during contractions will no longer be comfortable.
  • You may begin to feel sweaty
  • Backache, leg and hip pressure are fairly common.
  • nausea/diarrhea
  • If your water hasn’t broken yet it is likely to break at this point or might be broken by your doctor or midwife.

How you might be feeling and Acting

  • You will likely no longer want to talk and interact with those around you.
  • Feeling like “I can’t do this”
  • Worries and anxieties may start to increase as your imagination takes hold.
  • You may begin to feel shaky

Coping Strategies for Active Labor

It is extremely important to rest between contractions. Labor still has a way to progress and it is important to get in as much rest as possible. Trying to relax during contractions is incredibly important as it allows labor to progress as smoothly as possible. Relaxation techniques and breathing exercises are extremely helpful during this time.

While you may start to want to stay still it is very important to change positions frequently during this time. Changing positions can help labor progress. Changing positions can be extremely beneficial in easing back labor. Try:

  • tub– relaxes the body and allows rest, however, might slow or stall labor.
  • standing/ leaning in the shower
  • squatting–Can help open the pelvis and gives baby room to maneuver.
  • sitting leaning forward on the birth ball– relieves back pain and is an excellent position for the support person to give back rubs. Good position for resting and does allow some gravity advantages.
  • walking/swaying–uses gravity. can make contractions less painful and more productive. Baby will be well aligned and may speed up labor. This position also relieves back pain.
  • getting on your hands and knees– Excellent position for back pain. This position allows for vaginal exams if necessary. Also takes pressure off of hemorrhoids.
  • sitting on the toilet
  • sitting on the birthing stool
  • standing–which uses gravity. Can make contractions less painful and more productive. Baby will be well aligned and might speed up labor. Leaning forward while standing can also relieve back pain.
  • ice pack on head–cools you down and can help relieve headaches
  • heating pad on back–can help with back labor pains
  • focusing on breathing/ meditating

For more information on birthing positions check out this informative post by THE BUMP.

What your Partner can do to Support You During Active Labor

As labor progresses, your support person becomes more and more important. At this point, your husband or partner should expect to stay close to you for the duration of labor. You are going to need the emotional support during this time. It is common for the support person to begin to feel very unsure of themselves during this time as they see you in pain. It is helpful to take a birth class together so that he can learn some coping and support strategies before the big day. Some of these strategies include:

  • words of affirmation
  • massage
  • counter pressure
  • suggest different positions and help you move into those positions
  • offering sips of water at the end of each contraction to promote hydration
  • shower you with LOTS of affection and attention


Read Next, Labor Transition.