How to Time Contractions

Getting Ready for the Final Stretch

Feeling your first contraction is like hitting the 25-mile mark of a marathon. You're so close to the end ... but boy, does it hurt. Luckily, contractions usually start mildly and get stronger as they progress, so you'll have some time to process all those, “It's really happening!” feelings before you get bowled over by the pain. But because contractions can be overwhelming, it's best to prepare for them well in advance. All you'll need to accurately time your contractions is a timer, paper, a pen and a level-headed partner who can handle some basic math.

All About Contractions

Newborn baby feet and hands of the mother

Sharp Pain in the Cervix With Fetal Movement

Learn More

Contractions are not your body's way of punishing you for getting pregnant, despite the theories you may create while you're recovering from each painful sensation. They serve an important function. During contractions, the cervix starts to open to make way for your baby.

They don't feel the same to every woman, which is why some soon-to-be-mamas don't realize right away that they're having contractions. You may feel as if you're having menstrual cramps at first, or a lower backache may be the first sign of contractions. Aching and pressure in your lower belly are also often signs that contractions have begun. The pain should get sharper as time goes on.

Note that contractions aren't the only surefire sign that labor is beginning. One of the earliest signals is increased pressure on your pelvis. It may happens weeks or hours before labor starts, but this shift, called “lightening,” happens when your baby drops down into the pelvic area to prepare for birth. Some women also see a clear or bloody discharge and/or have their water break in the hours before labor.

It's All in the Timing

Keep track of two things during contractions: the length of each one (duration) and the time between two contractions (frequency). That information will help you determine when it's time to call your doctor. It's hard to focus on time while you're in the middle of a contraction, so make this your partner's job. Your partner should use a timer to measure the contractions and write down the measurements rather than trying to remember them.

Tell your partner to make note of the exact time at the start of every contraction and to start the timer then. When the pressure or pain stops, note the time again and calculate the duration of the contraction. When the next contraction starts, repeat the process. To determine the frequency, tell your partner to calculate the time between the start of one contraction and the start of the next.

So, if your first contraction starts at 7:00 and lasts 90 seconds, and your next contraction starts at 7:15, your contractions are 15 minutes apart.

False Alarm

Newborn baby feet and hands of the mother

How To Ease Contractions At Home

Learn More

Named for the doctor who first identified them, Braxton Hicks contractions are false contractions that don't actually signal the start of labor. Some women experience them during the second or third trimester, and others don't have them at all. Think of Braxton Hicks contractions as practice for the real thing. They may feel like genuine contractions, but they won't speed up or intensify over time.

Even if you suspect you're having Braxton Hicks contractions, time them anyway. If they don't come at regular intervals, it's probably a false alarm. Braxton Hicks contractions will eventually get less intense and then end altogether.

What to Do When Contractions Start

Your doctor should talk to you about how to decide when it's time to call her. Depending on whether you've had a baby before (labor often takes longer with a first baby), and whether your pregnancy is high risk, she'll probably tell you to call when the contractions are somewhere between three and seven minutes apart. If you're planning a home birth and working with a midwife or doula, call her as soon as contractions start.

It can take hours for contractions to become frequent and strong enough to warrant the trip to the hospital birth center. In the meantime, enjoy the comforts of home and use the time to rest. Relax with a warm shower, double-check that your hospital bag is packed or distract yourself with TV. Or better yet, try to get some sleep—you'll be glad you did.