A person getting ready to give birth likely has spent time thinking about when they will go into labor and how they will know. The timing between contractions and how long they last is key.

Labor is the process of the fetus leaving the uterus. It happens when a person experiences contractions 5–10 minutes apart that last for 30–70 seconds. These contractions tend to be less painful initially but intensify as labor progresses.

This article discusses the signs and stages of labor and how long contractions last and change throughout labor.

Most people go into labor near their due date, somewhere between 38 and 41 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Not everyone can tell if they are in labor, especially if they have never given birth before. That is because some people experience contractions on and off before true labor starts. These are known as Braxton-Hicks contractions.

Real labor contractions occur regularly and get closer, stronger, and more painful with time. They do not go away when a person walks or changes position.

Unlike real labor contractions, Braxton-Hicks contractions are generally irregular, less painful, and do not get closer together with time. They are more likely to occur after physical activity and typically stop when a person changes position or walks.

To help distinguish between real labor versus Braxton-Hicks contractions, a person should familiarize themselves with the signs of labor, which include:

  • regular, increasingly painful contractions that last 30–70 seconds and come about 5–10 minutes apart
  • back pain or pain in the lower abdomen that does not go away when a person changes positions
  • brown or red bloody mucus from the vagina known as bloody show, which may occur before labor begins
  • a gush or trickle of water if the amniotic sac ruptures (water breaking), which may happen before or during labor

However, a person in labor does not need to have all the signs of labor to be in labor.

There are three main stages of labor.

First stage: Latent labor

The first stage of labor includes two phases: Early, or latent labor and active labor. Normally, the cervix is closed, but it fully dilates to 10 centimeters (cm) in this stage of labor.

During the latent phase, the uterus contracts and allows the cervix to slowly thin and open, or dilate. It dilates to 6 cm across in latent labor, a process that can take up to 20 hours.

Some people may have difficulty knowing when they are in labor, especially if there is no bloody show or water breaking. They may not feel the contractions, or the contractions may be far apart and feel similar to menstrual cramps or back pain. Contractions during this time can happen every 5–15 minutes and last 60–90 seconds.

Learn how to time contractions properly.

If a person has a healthy, full-term pregnancy, they can stay home during this phase. To make early labor contractions more comfortable, individuals can try:

  • going for a short walk
  • sleeping if possible
  • taking a warm bath or shower
  • drinking water
  • resting and relaxing as much as possible
  • changing positions often
  • getting ready to go to the hospital

First stage: Active labor

The second phase is active labor, which lasts until the full dilation of the cervix to 10 cm. The cervix changes more rapidly in active labor than in latent labor. During this phase of labor, contractions get closer together and stronger. According to the March of Dimes, contractions in active labor last about 45 seconds and happen up to every 3 minutes.

The transition from active labor to pushing in the second stage is often the most painful part of labor. The person may feel intense pressure in their pelvis, back, and rectum. To cope with contractions during this stage of labor, an individual can try:

  • relaxing between contractions
  • moving around and changing positions to relieve pressure on the back
  • walking around
  • drinking water
  • using the bathroom frequently to keep the bladder empty
  • taking a warm shower
  • having a partner apply gentle pressure to their back
  • leaning or sitting on a birthing ball

During this part of labor, a person may choose to begin pain medicine, such as an epidural.

Second stage: Delivery of the baby

The second stage of labor begins when the cervix is fully dilated and ends when the baby is born. During this phase of labor, the fetus passes from the uterus through the birth canal and the person will actively push the baby out.

This stage of labor should not last longer than 4 hours. It may be shorter in people who have had a prior vaginal birth and longer in individuals who have an epidural for pain relief. During this phase of labor, contractions occur every 2–5 minutes and may last between 60–90 seconds.

Coping tips during this phase of labor include:

  • trying different positions, including squatting, sitting, kneeling, or laying back
  • pushing only during contractions
  • resting between contractions
  • listening to the instructions of the healthcare team

Third stage: Delivery of the placenta

The third stage of the labor starts as soon as the baby is born and lasts until the healthcare team delivers the placenta. The placenta is the organ that grows during pregnancy to supply the fetus with nutrients and oxygen.

This stage lasts 5–30 minutes. The person will still have contractions, but they will not be as close together or as painful as they were before birthing the baby. The contractions help the placenta separate from the uterus.

However, contractions do not necessarily end with the delivery of the placenta. Known as postpartum contractions, afterbirth pains, or afterpains, they may last for 2–3 days as the uterus begins to return to its normal size. People who have a cesarean section also experience afterbirth pains, according to the ACOG.

In the third stage of labor, most of the labor process is complete. A person can focus on resting and bonding with the baby through skin-to-skin contact or feeding.

Learn more about the stages of labor.

Labor induction involves the use of medications to bring on labor. Medications to induce labor can include prostaglandins to ripen the cervix and a synthetic version of oxytocin (Pitocin).

Labor induction drugs can jumpstart contractions. Most people experience contractions within 30 minutes of receiving Pitocin, though contractions with this drug may be stronger and more frequent than without induction.

In some cases, a Pitocin induction may cause overstimulation of the uterus. When this occurs, the uterus contracts too frequently and it may lead to fetal heart rate changes, problems with the umbilical cord, and other complications. The body metabolizes oxytocin quickly, so stopping the Pitocin infusion can reduce contractions. The doctor may use the medication terbutaline to relax the uterus.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between true labor and false labor. Knowing the signs of labor, what contractions feel like, and how long contractions tend to last with false versus real labor can help a person distinguish the difference.