What’s the 511 on Timing Contractions?


Since 2015 Omaha Birth and Babies owners (Andrea and Shannon) have been supporting families through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Over and over, we have received the same question, and it is a great question. When do I start to time my contractions?

For many families, when labor begins at home, they often wonder how quickly their contractions are coming, how long are they lasting, and what does that all mean. Usually, these waves of pressure start slow and unpredictable. Some contractions may be 10 minutes apart, others 20 minutes while some come as close as a few minutes apart lasting anywhere from 30-50 seconds. When they are shorter in length and in an unpredictable pattern like this, we call this early birthing time or early labor. Eventually, your contractions will slowly and surely start to get a regular pattern where they are coming almost the same minutes apart and the same length each wave.

That is where the 511 or 411 your doctor or midwife may have told you about comes in handy. What does 511 mean, you ask? Let us break down these numbers for you. The 5 (in the 511) represents the number of minutes your contractions are from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next contraction (in this case, 5 minutes apart).  The first 1 (in 511) represents how many minutes your contractions are lasting from the start of a contraction to the end of that contraction (in this case, 1 minute long).  The last 1 (in 511) represents how many hours your contractions should be at the 5 minutes apart and lasting one minute before you need to think of heading in (In this case, it needs to have been at least one hour). Some medical providers will even say 411 or 311, which means they want your contractions closer together before heading in.

We would even add INTENSITY needs to be considered in the 511 rule, which means for that one hour, your contractions need to be powerful and strong. You should not be able to talk or at least easily talk through your contractions (even if using Hypnobabies Childbirth Hypnosis). Before deciding to head into the hospital (as long as it’s okay with your doctor), you may also want to consider taking a shower and see if the wonderfully warm hydrotherapy of the water spaces out your contractions. If the shower does not change the pattern of your contractions, at least you are now clean. If it does space them out a little bit, then that’s helpful to know you can stay home a little longer in the comfort of your own living space. More than likely, they would have spaced out from your change in location anyway, and no one wants to make that car ride twice.

What is the easiest way to time your contractions?

There are many different ways you can time your contractions, but what is the easiest way to correctly time your contractions? Our answer, without a doubt, is an app. There are so many free contraction timer apps available. You can easily download a few and play around with them to see which ones you like. You can absolutely bring out the old school stopwatch and write the numbers down on a piece of paper. Still, most families prefer the ease of touching their phone screen when a contraction starts and when one ends. Then your app will tell you how many seconds that particular contraction lasted and how many minutes were between the last two contractions. You can get a good sense of when that 511 is coming easily from just looking at your contraction timer app.

Do you need to time all your contractions?

By heavens, no! Actually, please don’t. Sometimes timing each or most of your contractions, especially in the beginning, does more harm than good. Timing your contractions early on may cause you to focus unnecessarily on contractions that could have been ignored until they became more powerful.  This may cause you to experience your birthing time as much longer; therefore, become frustrated or saddened by the amount of time your birthing is taking. However, if you choose to let your contractions just come, ignore them as best as you can, and go on with your regular routine, you may experience your birthing time as shorter, more comfortable and may have more energy reserved because you focused on other things instead of timing your contractions.

Does that mean you should never time your contractions? Of course not. Timing your contractions can be quite helpful once they become powerful enough to need to focus on breathing through each wave of pressure. You can also allow your birthing team like you, OBGYN, Midwife, or your doula to have updates on the progress. Timing your contractions can also be a tool you use to weigh whether or not its time to head to your hospital or birthing center (remember 311, 411, 511).

Once you feel like you want to start timing your contractions, we suggest timing about five or so in a row and then not timing again for an hour or two unless you notice or feel a considerable change in the intensity, frequency, or length of the contractions.

After many years in this career, we have been witness to many mothers whose bodies didn’t follow the textbook of numbers in birth, so always make sure you listen to your own body’s cues and wisdom and, if in doubt, ask your birth doula.

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