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App-Assisted Labor: Smartphones During Childbirth Are All The Rage, But Do They Help?

When Juli Simon Thomas gave birth to her son last year, she wanted a generally low-tech environment: a midwife instead of an ob-gyn, a quiet room and no drugs. “I was bound and determined to avoid an epidural,” she said, even despite 25 hours of labor.

But Thomas had one important, technical requirement: an app on her smartphone that allowed her to precisely track her contractions.

“I use my phone for everything, and this was really helpful,” said Thomas, 35, a post-doctorate fellow in population research. “The process of labor is so variable, and what you end up hearing is how you have to ‘go with the flow,’ ‘see how it turns out,’ ‘just relax and wait’ — I can’t do that. This gave me something more concrete to focus on … Just standing around in various levels of pain while breathing wasn’t a good choice for me.”

We already date, order takeout and document supremely intimate moments on our phones. So it’s no surprise that smartphones have also permeated the realm of childbirth.

contraction timerPeople in the birthing world say labor apps have become ubiquitous — part of the landscape and akin to written birth plans, which were all the rage a decade or more ago.

Rise Of The Labor App

According to the iPhone App Store, there are at least 80 “labor apps” alone that help women time their contractions to assess how close they are to giving birth. Some are free, some aren’t. Some have advertisements for infant formula, some don’t.

Moms who’ve used them say they all operate in similar ways, usually with start-and-stop icons you press at the beginning and end of each contraction in order to record duration and frequency until you get to the magic number 5-1-1. (That means contractions are 5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute each, for 1 hour.)

At that point, doctors and midwives pretty universally want you to call to determine if it’s time to get to the hospital, or for a home birth, get a practitioner to you.

Of course, there are also apps for pretty much every aspect of pregnancy, birth and postpartum as well: from tracking the baby’s kicks and mom’s breast milk production to documenting hours of sleep (or lack thereof) and diaper use. In 2013, ABC News reported that nearly 50 percent of total mobile subscribers using one or more health apps are using a pregnancy-related app.

Elizabeth Henry, 36, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, stood by as her husband worked out her contractions on a Microsoft Excel spread sheet when she gave birth four years ago. When she gave birth in July, she used the Full Term contraction app on her own while her husband watched their toddler. “I’m a data person, and this app kept me honest. I was trying to do last-minute things in the house and stay home as long as possible, and I didn’t think the contractions were coming so fast. But then when I looked at the screen, I saw it really was time to go to the hospital.”

Not Everyone So App-Happy

Labor doesn’t always unfold in a predictable pattern. Continue reading

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