What Are Labor Contractions Like?

How Contractions Feel, How to Know They're Real, and How to Time Them

How to time contractions

 Verywell / Mary McLain

When you're nearing the end of your pregnancy, it's important to start watching for signs of contractions—and to know what real contractions feel like. There are different kinds of contractions, and only labor contractions signal your baby is on the way. But if you time your contractions and know the characteristics of the real thing, you'll know whether you are truly in labor—and when it's time to call the OB/GYN or midwife and head to the hospital or birth center.

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This guide to timing contractions will help you distinguish between different types of contractions to help you determine if you are in false, early, or active labor. Be sure to share this information with your partner or support person, as well. 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 end of pregnancy brings all kinds of sensations, from general aches and pains to lightning crotch as well as false and real contractions. Knowing what contractions feel like and timing them can help you determine if what you're feeling are contractions, whether you are in established labor, and figure out 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.

Types of Contractions

Real contractions are the type of contractions that mean you're going into labor. However, days, weeks, or even months before this happens, you'll start to experience Braxton-Hick contractions. Braxton-Hicks contractions, which are also called practice or false contractions, help the body prepare for labor and feel similar to early real contractions in that the abdomen tightens. However, it's relatively easy to tell them apart from the real thing.

As opposed to true contractions, Braxton-Hicks contractions do not arrive in a regular pattern, do not increase in intensity, length, or frequency, and do not tend to be truly painful. Additionally, practice labor contractions will usually stop if you move positions. This is not the case for real labor which won't stop regardless of what you do and becomes longer, stronger, and closer together over time—and are progressively more painful.

Signs of Labor Contractions

Contractions can feel like very strong menstrual cramps. You will likely feel pressure or a dull ache in your back, abdomen, and pelvis area that moves in a wave-like motion from the top of your uterus to the bottom. They may feel similar to the abdominal pain one might get from gastrointestinal upset, and may also be described as an intense tightening, pulling, or crushing sensation.

How strong the contraction is will help you tell the difference between Braxton-Hicks contractions and contractions of true labor. As noted above, Braxton-Hicks contractions 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 20 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 vary quite a bit and 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 that every pregnant person's individual situation may vary.

In general, though, unless your doctor or midwife has told you otherwise, you should call your medical provider and/or head to the hospital or your chosen place of birth when your contractions are every 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.

4 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. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to tell when labor begins.

  2. Stanford Children's Health. Overview of labor.

  3. University of Michigan Health System. Contractions during pregnancy: What to expect.

  4. Ryan G, Nicholson S, Crankshaw D, Morrison J. Maternal parity and functional contractility of human myometrium in vitro in the third trimester of pregnancy. J Perinatol. 2019;39:439-444. doi:10.1038/s41372-019-0312-2

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.