How to Time Contractions

How to Time Contractions

Knowing how to time contractions is a great skill to have in your toolbox as your due date approaches. We’ll take you through the details.
If you want to find out how to time contractions, it might mean you are in labor or coming up to your due date.

So first of all, let’s have a collective HOORAY!

It’ll soon be baby time!

As you near the end stages of your pregnancy, make sure you chat to your health care provider about your birth preferences.

This will include what to do when you go into labor, depending on your wishes and personal medical history.

And while you’re preparing, we’ve got the 411 on all things contractions and their timing.

In this article: 📝

  • What are contractions in pregnancy?
  • What are labor contractions?
  • When should I start timing contractions?
  • How far apart should contractions be before you go to the hospital?
  • How do you calculate labor time?

What are contractions in pregnancy?

Contractions in pregnancy are the rhythmic tightening and relaxing of the uterus.

It’s the work that moves your precious babe down and through the birth canal into the world.

The muscles in your uterus are doing their part in the effacement (stretching and thinning) and dilation (opening up) of your cervix.

People often ask what contractions feel like.

The truth is, it differs for everyone.

Some describe them as painful, others as powerful hard work, and yet others have been known to have what they’d call pain-free birth.

During contractions, your belly will get harder, with what some describe as something similar to period pain, moving from your lower back to your lower belly.

Contractions also tend to follow a pattern.

Beginning slowly and then reaching a peak before coming down again. Like a wave.

These waves become longer and more intense as labor progresses.

If you’re practicing hypnobirthing you’ll know them as “surges.”

What are labor contractions?

If you are near the end of your pregnancy, lose your mucus plug, experience any diarrhea, or feel a rhythmic tightening of the uterus, it could be go-time!

A good way to tell whether the pains are Braxton-Hicks (basically, prep contractions) or the real thing is to take a warm bath and lie down.

If they stop and don’t increase in intensity, it’s probably just practice labor.

If they continue and start to get stronger or more regular, it might be the real thing.

When should I start timing contractions?

You can start timing contractions as soon as you start noticing a pattern.

Generally, irregular contractions mean you are not quite in established labor just yet.

Here’s how to time contractions at home. (Spoiler alert: it’s super easy.)

All you need is:

  • A pen
  • A piece of paper and
  • A watch

Or you can go full-contemporary and use one of the available apps on your phone that can do it for you.

Here’s how:

  • Write down the time the contraction starts and when it ends. Then with a bit of math, you can work out how long it lasted, or;
  • Use a stopwatch. Note the time the contraction starts, then start timing. Press stop when it stops. Continue like this. Or;
  • Let the magic of technology take care of it for you 😉.

Whatever method you use, do it over a period of time so that you can see if there’s a pattern emerging.

How far apart should contractions be before you go to the hospital?

Knowing how far apart your contractions are is helpful to get an idea of where you may be in your labor.

The hospital or your home birth midwife will likely ask you how far apart your contractions are when you check in with them.

It’s common practice for the magic number to be 5-1-1.

This is how it works.

What is the 5-1-1 rule for contractions?

You may have heard your health care provider talk about the 5-1-1 rule as you near your due date.

Every healthcare professional will have their own recommendations about when it’s time to head to the hospital or call the midwife.

And this will be based on your specific medical history.

In most low-risk pregnancies, the timing is 5-1-1.

This means that contractions:

  • Happen every five minutes.
  • Last on average for one minute and
  • Follow this pattern for around one hour.

Another indication that it’s time for the hospital or the midwife is if you are unable to talk through the contractions because they’re so intense.

Why is the 5-1-1 system so helpful?

The benefit of the 5-1-1 system for first-time mamas in low-risk pregnancies is that it gives you a sense of when to go into the hospital or call your midwife.

Otherwise, we often get so excited that we rush off too early in the process, only to find ourselves bored, pacing hospital corridors while waiting for things to heat up.

Wouldn’t you rather be bouncing on your birthing ball at home watching reruns of your favorite show?

Of course, you can go in any time to be checked out and should if you feel something off.

You know your body best.

And if everything is progressing normally and they find that labor is not yet in full swing, you can always ask to go home and wait for that epic 5-1-1.

As always, these are questions and discussions to have with your primary health care provider and will differ depending on your personal circumstances.

So check in with them about what’s best for you.

How do you calculate labor time?

We know it can be annoying to hear during pregnancy, but in this case, it’s worth repeating in this case.

Each person is so very different.

On average, a first-time mama could be looking at a labor of twelve to 24 hours.

The good news is that it tends to shorten with any births that follow your first one—simply because your body remembers how to do it from the last time.

Some reassurance, though.

While twelve to 24 hours can sound like a really long time to be in pain or discomfort, luckily, it’s not twelve hours of continuous pain.

There are breaks between contractions where you can rest and recover.

Early contractions will likely be irregular and spaced fairly far apart.

And labor often starts off feeling similar to mild period pain.

You may even be able to sleep through the first part, and that’s not a bad idea to help you gather your strength.

As things ramp up, if you find you can’t lie down, you may be able to take a walk, watch a movie, or even bake a cake for the new baby’s birthday!

(No pressure, though. You have enough on your hands.)

The best part is that your baby is on its way.

It’s almost the last push (😉) to the finish line, and you’re going to be awesome.

So get your stopwatch ready or download that app.

It’s almost go-time.

💡 More from The 411:
What is Precipitous Labor?
How to Induce Labor (Yourself)
Your Intro to Lamaze Breathing: What You Need to Know
Preparing for Childbirth: Helpful Things to Know
What To Expect from Induction of Labor
What are the Ways to Induce Labor?
18 Labor Tips For Moms
How to Prepare for a Baby: 11 Tips
Signs That Labor is 24–48 Hours Away
Why Can’t You Eat During Labor?
Castor Oil for Labor: What’s That About?
Safe Ways to Go into Labor Tonight
Your Labor and Delivery Playlist
Late Decelerations: All You Need to Know About

Popular on the blog
Trending in our community