How To Time Contractions In Early Labor (And When To Go To The Hospital)

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
timing contractions, pregnant person's abdomen
Daniel Reche/Pexels

Anyone who has given birth (or at least witnessed one), can probably confirm that it looks a lot different in real life than it does on TV. Typically, the Hollywood version of childbirth begins dramatically, with the character’s water breaking, and ends with a perfectly spotless baby emerging from underneath her hospital gown. Early labor contractions usually play a bit part in it too, with the bumbling, incompetent husband or partner character attempting to time them, and mom-to-be engaging in some sort of breathing exercise. So, if you find yourself getting ready to birth a baby of your own IRL, you may have a few questions to help separate reality and TV magic, including how to time contractions, how to know if they’re “real,” and when to get to a hospital, stat.

Interested in more pregnancy content? Check out our pages on healthy meals during your pregnancy, inducing labor, and more.

What are early labor contractions?

There are two stages of labor: early labor, and active labor. When you’re in active labor, trust us, you’ll know it. But early labor can be a little harder to identify. Think of it as your body’s opening act before the main event. Contractions happen when your uterine muscle tightens and flexes. And while they’re ultimately what’s going to help you push that baby out, when you feel your first contractions, it doesn’t necessarily mean the baby is about to make its debut right away.

But before we get into the specifics of “real” contractions, let’s talk about Braxton Hicks contractions. These do make frequent TV appearances (especially in sitcoms), given that it provides the opportunity for a character to make a Toni Braxton reference. Essentially, they’re just your uterus getting warmed up, and usually start in the second trimester. And yes, they’re totally normal. Fortunately, they tend not to be as extreme as regular contractions.

Early labor contractions, on the other hand, prompt your cervix to open up and prepare for delivery. At one stage, you may notice a clear, pink, or slightly bloody discharge leak out of your vagina. That’s probably your mucus plug, one of the other steps in the birthing process. Early labor can last anywhere between a few hours and a few days, but if your water breaks (or if you have any significant vaginal bleeding), it’s time to grab that pre-packed bag and get to the hospital or birthing center. Before (and in some cases, after) your water breaks, your doula, birthing coach, midwife, nurse, or doctor will let you know when it’s time to go to the hospital (more on that in a bit).

How do you time contractions in early labor?

For the most part, early labor contractions tend to be “mild” and feel more like period cramps, but every body is different, so they may not feel mild to you. The other thing about early labor contractions is that they tend to be pretty irregular, with each one lasting between 30 and 45 seconds and occurring somewhere between five minutes to 30 minutes apart. So how do you actually time contractions? Here’s what to do:

  • Write down the time when a contraction starts
  • Write down the time when that same contraction ends
  • The difference between the beginning and the end of the contraction tells you how long it lasted.
  • When the next contraction starts, write down the time, then figure out how long it has been since your previous contraction ended. This tells you how far apart your contractions are.
  • Keep doing this for a while to see if they fall into some sort of regular pattern. If not, take a break and then try again later.

If that involves too much math at an already stressful time, you may want to use an app to time your contractions. Some popular options include Full Term, Contraction Timer, iBirth app, and the Pregnancy to Parenting app.

What are active labor contractions?

This is different than early labor or Braxton Hicks transactions. During active labor, the contractions are about four to five minutes apart, and they last about 30 seconds to a minute. This is a great time to head to the place you want to give birth. Women usually feel pain in the front and back of the uterus.

What are transition contractions?

During the transition contractions, your cervix changes from eight to 10 centimeters. Some women describe it as one of the most painful parts of labor. These contractions are way longer and usually last up to two minutes. The breaks in between are very short and women usually feel a lot of pressure in their vagina and rectum. This is usually the point when women scream or experience shaking, vomiting, and chills.

When should you go to the hospital for contractions?

Knowing how to identify and track contractions is extremely helpful, but it’s also important to know when to high-tail it to the emergency room. As far as when to head to the hospital, your doctor or midwife may have already given you specific instructions. If they haven’t (or if the instructions are based on contractions), make your way to the hospital or birthing center when your contractions are three to five minutes apart, lasting between 45 and 60 seconds over a one-hour period if it’s your first delivery. For those who have been through it before, you can wait until your contractions are five to seven minutes apart (still lasting between 45 and 60 seconds each).

How can you distinguish true labor vs. false labor?

False alarms can be so annoying, but they’re pretty common when you’re on the verge of delivery. Going into labor is monumental, so it’s important to know when it’s really happening. To save a trip to the hospital and stress for your entire family, pay attention to these telltale signs of true labor. When it’s really showtime, walking around doesn’t relieve any of the pain of your contractions. They become more intense and painful over time. The discomfort usually starts at your back and then moves to the front of your stomach. The pain will eventually move closer together. At this point, it’s not uncommon to experience some bleeding from your vagina.

On the other hand, there should be no blood during false labor. The contractions usually only focus on the front of your body and, if you walk around and do some activity during these contractions, the pain will fade. The strength of the contractions and the intervals in which they happen do not increase. They stay the same.

Other signs of true labor or that you’re having a baby (right now) is that changing positions doesn’t stop the pain. Contractions feel like a dull ache in your low abdomen and back. You may also feel pressure in your pelvis — most women do say it’s similar to menstrual cramps. A day or two leading up to your delivery, you may notice your stools are loose as well. This can also be a sign that the baby is coming soon.

When your baby is ready to go, you will experience lightening. This can happen weeks or hours before going into labor. This is when your baby moves down into your pelvis, which is also known as baby dropping. You may have to pee more frequently than before (oh joy). The plus side? This shift can relieve heartburn or any breathing issues you may have been experiencing.

Are there quotes about childbirth?

Childbirth is a unique experience for each woman, but it isn’t easy. Delivering your baby is the beginning of motherhood, but it’s an experience you never forget. So, if you want a glimpse of what labor is like, read below.

“Death, taxes, and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.” — Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

“Having a baby is painful in order to show how serious a thing life is.” — Lisa See, Shanghai Girls

“Just as there is no warning for childbirth, there is no preparation for the sight of a first child. There should be a song for women to sing at this moment or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name the moment.” — Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

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