Guide To Timing Your Contractions During Labor

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timing contractions
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You’re close to the end of your pregnancy and your due date is approaching (or may even have passed). At this point, it’s likely you’re involved into what’s going on in your body, keeping watch for timing contractions and every clue that your baby is on the way and you’re close enough to give birth that you should head to the hospital or birth center or call your midwife.

How Do You Know You Are In Labor?

The important clues you’re looking for are strong contractions that are arriving at a constant rate and lasting for a definite amount of time. Even if your water has broken (meaning the amniotic sac your baby is floating in has broken and is leaking fluid), your caregiver probably will tell you to wait until your contractions are regular and close together before you head to the hospital.

Timing contractions is easy to do and can tell you lots about your pregnancy and your labor. If you take childbirth class your trainer probably will go over the different types of contractions (Braxton-Hicks contractions that are considerably feebler versus the real ones that indicate labor is in progress) along with how to monitor contractions when you’re in labor.

This guide to timing contractions will help to reinforce what you learn. 

Why Timing Contractions Is Essential

The most basic reason it’s vital to know how to time your contractions is that it will help you understand which stage of labor you’re in and what you should do next. It’s also important to know 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 immediately.

timing contractions

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 entirely closed to 3 centimeters (cm) in diameter. Contractions are mild—similar to menstrual cramps—and also irregular, each one lasting about 30 to 45 seconds and occurring from 5 minutes to 30 minutes apart.
  • Active labor: The cervix will dilate from 4 cm to 7 cm and the contractions will be stronger and will last longer—last from 45 seconds to 60 seconds, with 3 minutes to 5 minutes between each. This is the point at which you should call your doctor and head to the hospital.
  • Transition: During this final phase of your labor, the cervix opens completely—from 8 cm to 10 cm. Your contractions will be so extended and intense they may seem to overlap. Each one will last about 60 to 90 seconds with just 30 seconds to 2 minutes rest among each.

How to Time Contractions

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

There are apps available for timing contractions but using a watch with a second hand or a reliable digital watch works just as well. You can use a stopwatch app on your phone too. Either way, the following are the steps to take:

When a contraction begins, jot down the time.  

  • When a contraction ends, write down its time. 
  • Do the math: The difference between the beginning and the end of a contraction indicates how long it lasted.
  • Once 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 specifies how far apart your contractions are.
  • Continue timing each contraction for some more rounds to see if they’ve fallen into a regular pattern yet. If they haven’t, take a break.

When To Go To The Hospital

Unless your doctor or midwife has given you other instructions, you should go to the hospital when your contractions are every 3 to 5 minutes and last for 45 seconds to 60 seconds each over the period of at least an hour if this is your first baby. If you’ve already delivered one baby, start making your way to the hospital when your contractions arrive every 5 to 7 minutes and last between 45 seconds and 60 seconds each.