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.
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, and 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, and is 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.
As far as when to head to the hospital, your doctor or midwife may have already given you specific instructions, but 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). every three to five minutes and last for 45 seconds to 60 seconds each over the course of at least an hour if this is your first baby.