Timing Contractions During Labor

How to Know When Your Baby Is Finally on the Way

'Man sitting with pregnant woman holding stop watch, smiling'
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You're at the end of your pregnancy and your due date is looming (or may even have passed). At this point, it's likely you're hyper-tuned in to what's going on in your body, keeping watch for any and every clue that your baby is finally on the way and you're close enough to giving birth that you should head to the hospital or birth center or call the midwife.

The main clues you're looking for are strong contractions that are arriving at a steady rate and lasting for a specific amount of time. Even if your water has broken (meaning the amniotic sac your baby is floating in has ruptured and is leaking fluid), your caregiver probably will instruct you to wait until your contractions are regular and close together before you head to where you plan to give birth.

Timing contractions is easy to do and can tell you a lot about your pregnancy and your labor. If you take childbirth class your instructor probably will go over the different types of contractions (Braxton-Hicks contractions that are considerably weaker versus the "real" ones that indicate labor is underway) as well as how to monitor contractions when you're in labor.

This guide to timing contractions should help to reinforce what you learn. Be sure to share this information with your partner: By the time your contractions are coming fast and furiously, you'll probably be too distracted to focus on a stopwatch or app.

Why Timing Contractions Is Important

The most basic reason it's important to know how to time your contractions is that it will help you figure out which stage of labor you're in and what you should do. It's also important to recognize when contractions that occur well before your due date might be a sign of preterm labor, in which case you'll want to call your doctor right away.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, each stage of labor is characterized by the degree to which the cervix has dilated as well as the timing of contractions:

  • Early labor. The cervix has dilated from completely closed to 3 centimeters (cm) in diameter. Contractions are mild—similar to menstrual cramps—and irregular, each one lasting about 30 to 45 seconds and occurring from five minutes to 30 minutes apart.
  • Active labor. The cervix will dilate from 4 cm to 7 cm and contractions will be stronger and last longer—last from 45 seconds to 60 seconds, with three minutes to five minutes between each. This is the point at which you should call your doctor and/or head to the hospital or birth center.
  • Transition. During this final phase of labor, the cervix opens completely—from 8 cm to 10 cm. Your contractions will be so long and intense they may seem to overlap. Each one will last about 60 to 90 seconds with just 30 seconds to two minutes rest between each.

How to Time Contractions

Once you begin having contractions that you're certain aren't Braxton-Hicks contractions and that are beginning to arrive with some degree of regularity, you should start timing them so that you'll know when you've entered active labor.

There are apps for timing contractions but the good old-fashioned way of using a watch with a second hand or a reliable digital watch works just as well. You also can use a stopwatch app on your phone. Either way, here are the steps to take. Grab a notepad or print out this handy chart so you can do the simple math required to determine who long each of your contractions are lasting:

  1. When a contraction begins, jot down the time.  
  2. When a contraction ends, write down the time. 
  3. Do the math: The difference between the beginning and the end of the contraction indicates how long the contraction lasted.
  4. As soon as the next contraction begins, write down the time and this time note how much time passed from the end of the first contraction to the beginning of the second. This indicates how far apart your contractions are.
  5. Continue timing each contraction for a few more rounds to see if they've fallen into a regular pattern yet. If they haven't, take a break.

When It's Time to Go to the Hospital

Unless your doctor or midwife has given you specific instructions, you should head to the hospital or your chosen place of birth when your contractions are 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. If you've already had one baby, start making your way to the hospital when your contractions arrive every five to seven minutes and last between 45 seconds and 60 seconds each.

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  • American Pregnancy Association. Stages of Childbirth: Stage 1. Mar 6, 2017. http://americanpregnancy.org/labor-and-birth/first-stage-of-labor/