As you move closer towards your due date you may start to experience contractions. Knowing how to time your contractions can help indicate how your labour is developing. Having this information will also help you assess if it’s time to head into the hospital.
Timing your contractions can also help you determine if you are in labour, or having false contractions.
What are birth contractions?
In the final stages of your pregnancy, contractions are your body’s way of telling you that labour has arrived. Sometimes, though, contractions can sound a false alarm.
Practice (false) contractions, more commonly known in the UK as Braxton Hicks, tend to arrive in the second trimester or third trimester of pregnancy.
If you encounter Braxton Hicks you will notice that they are often irregular and can vary somewhat in duration. Understanding how to time your false contractions is a great way for you and your midwife to decide if you are going into labour.
When a contraction happens your body releases a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone stimulates your uterus which makes it contract. Contractions help move your baby down into the birth canal and thin your cervix to get your body ready for delivery. They tend to begin around week 39 of pregnancy. If contractions start prior to week 37 these are classed as premature labour.
When you have a real contraction you will feel a wave (of pain!). Contraction pain tends to start low, increase to its peak, and then dissolves away. Your abdomen will feel hard under the hand if touched during a contraction.
The difference between true labour contractions and Braxton Hicks is the behaviour of the space between contractions. Real contractions tend to be evenly spaced apart (e.g. every 3 minutes), and the time between the contractions gets shorter and shorter. Real contractions also become much more intense and painful as time passes.
Other important signs you are in labour
- A vaginal discharge that contains mucus tinged with either bright red or dark brown blood. This discharge is called the “bloody show.”
- Feeling that your baby has dropped into the lower part of your belly
- Vaginal fluid leaking. This could be a sign that your water has broken (get to the hospital!)
- A sensation that your baby has ‘dropped’ into your lower abdomen
- Loose and frequent bowel movements and cramps
- A feeling of restlessness or increased energy (mother nature is kicking in!)
When is the best time to start timing your contractions?
It is sensible to start timing your contractions once you have had two or three and things appear to be becoming regular.
Contractions feel like a very heavy period and severe constipation so watch for those signs. You may notice the pain starting out in the lower back and stomach but remember this varies from woman to woman.
Contractions tend to start lasting around one minute and then happen every quarter of an hour. Don’t worry if yours are not in sync with these patterns, everyone’s experience is slightly different.
If you believe you are starting to have contractions, it’s very important to time from the beginning of one contraction to the start of your next contraction. This will indicate how far apart your contractions are.
Early contractions might last 15 to 25 seconds. When you are in full labour contractions tend to last closer to a minute in length, sit consistently around 3.5 minutes apart, and can go on for hours!
What is the most accurate way to time my contractions?
How to manually time your contractions
Timing your contractions is not difficult.
You will need a pen or pencil, a piece of paper and a clock or watch with a second hand. When you first feel a contraction, write down the time it started. After the contraction ends write down the time it ended. When the next contraction starts, write down the time it starts and stops.
Continue this process for 30 to 60 minutes.
When you learn how to time your contractions you will have a good idea of your stage of labour and when it is best to go to the hospital.
When should I go to the hospital?
A simple rule of thumb is the closer the contractions are together, the sooner your body is to giving birth. As soon as your contractions start to arrive every four or five minutes you need to prepare to head to the hospital.
If your contractions are mild and sit more than five minutes apart, it’s very likely that you are in early labour.
These types of contraction can be irregular (or regular) and tend to last 25 to 40 seconds for each contraction. You will very likely be at home resting when the signs of early labour arrive. There is no need to contact the hospital just yet.
When your contractions start arriving much more frequently, are consistent and longer in duration, and more painful, contact your midwife or the hospital.
If you’re not sure if you’re in real labour, but think you might be, get on the phone to your midwife or hospital. It’s also time to call your midwife if your water breaks, you notice any bleeding or bright red vaginal discharge, you experience blurred or double vision or a severe headache.
Remember, if in doubt, always call your hospital or midwife directly for advice.