How to Time Contractions

How to time contractions

 Verywell / Mary McLain

When you're nearing the end of your pregnancy and your due date is looming (or it has passed), it's important to start watching for signs of contractions. There are different kinds of contractions, but if you time your contractions, you'll know whether you are truly in labor—aka when it's time to call the midwife or head to the hospital or birth center.

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This guide to timing contractions will help you tell the difference between different types of contractions and help you determine where you are in false, early, or active labor. 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

Timing your contractions can help you determine whether you are in established labor and figure which stage of labor you're in so you know what to do. You should also know how to time contractions well before your due date so that you can recognize signs of preterm labor.

Even if your water breaks (meaning the amniotic sac that your baby is floating in has ruptured), your provider may instruct you to wait until your contractions are regular and close together before you head to where you plan to give birth depending on your medical history and circumstances. You aren't in established labor until your contractions arrive at a steady rate and consistently increase in both intensity and duration.

Signs of Labor Contractions

Contractions can feel like very strong menstrual cramps: You will likely feel pressure or a dull ache in your back and lower abdomen that moves in a wave-like motion from the top of your uterus to the bottom.

How strong the contraction is will help you tell the difference between Braxton-Hick contractions and contractions of true labor. Braxton-Hicks are generally weaker, irregular, and infrequent. They usually don't cause any real pain and by definition don't cause cervical change.

Labor contractions, meanwhile, will be stronger and will arrive with some degree of regularity.

Some signs of labor include:

  • Regular strong contractions
  • Pain
  • Discharge
  • Water breaking

If you are experiencing most—or all—of these symptoms, it is time to start timing contractions.

How Long Do Contractions Last?

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 contraction lasts 30 to 45 seconds and occurs five to 30 minutes apart.
  • Active labor: The cervix will dilate from 4 cm to 7 cm and contractions will be stronger and last longer. Usually, they will last 45 to 60 seconds, with three minutes to five minutes between each one. This is the point where you should generally call your provider and/or head to the hospital or birth center.
  • Transition: During this final phase of labor before the birth of your baby, the cervix opens completely—from 8 cm to 10 cm. Contractions can 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.

In general, labor can take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours for the first delivery and about 8 to 10 hours for subsequent births. However, everyone is different and every pregnancy is different. Some people are in labor much longer or shorter than average. Individual pain tolerance and perception should be considered as well.

How to Time Contractions

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. Whatever you use, here are the steps to take.

Grab a notepad so you can do the simple math required to determine how 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.
  5. 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, or the frequency of contractions.
  6. 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.
Sample Contraction Timing Chart
  Time Contraction Started Time Contraction Ended Duration (in seconds) Frequency (in minutes)
Contraction 1 10:00:02 am 10:00:32 am 30 sec
Contraction 2 10:15:01 am 10:15:42 am 41 sec 15 min
Contraction 3 10:26:00 am 10:26:35 am 35 sec 10 min

When to Go to the Hospital

During the last few weeks of your pregnancy, you'll want to discuss your birth plan with your provider so that you know what to do once your labor begins. Here are some general guidelines but keep in mind, every woman's individual situations may vary.

In general, though, unless your doctor or midwife has told you otherwise, you should head to the hospital or your chosen place of birth when your contractions are every three to five minutes apart and they last 45 seconds to 60 seconds over the course of 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 apart and last between 45 seconds and 60 seconds each.

If you experience any bleeding, fever, or extreme pain, however, call your provider and head to the hospital right away.

A Word From Verywell

Contraction timing is an important tool to help you identify when you are in labor and when it might be time to head to the place where you plan to give birth. However, while the guidelines provided in this article are helpful tools, you should always talk to your provider about your individual birth plan so that they can advise you based on your unique circumstances.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. March of Dimes. Stages of Labor. March 2019.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Labor & Delivery. Reviewed: July 26, 2016.