Timing contractions can help people tell how quickly labor is progressing. It can also help with distinguishing false contractions from real labor.
For women who plan to deliver at a birth center or hospital, the intensity and frequency of contractions can help with deciding when to go there.
Contractions can stop and start or even layer on top of one another. Some women are ready to push even when their contractions are far apart, while others spend a day or longer in active labor.
People can time a contraction using a stopwatch or a stopwatch app on a smartphone. Doctors might ask about three factors:
- Contraction frequency: How often a person has a contraction.
- Contraction length: How long each contraction lasts.
- Contraction regularity: Whether the contractions are consistent. Do they come at regular intervals and last about the same amount of time, or are they getting progressively more intense?
The higher the frequency and regularity of the contractions and the closer they are together, the more likely it is that a woman is in active labor.
Although some variation is common, true labor contractions occur at regular intervals. False labor contractions do not have a regular pattern and do not get closer together over time.
- Start the stopwatch at the beginning of the contraction: The contraction will likely get more intense, peak in intensity, then steadily become less severe. When the contraction stops — meaning that there is no more pain or pressure — note how long it lasted, but keep the stopwatch running.
- When the next contraction begins, stop the stopwatch and then quickly restart it: Noting the time on stopping the stopwatch will help provide the length of time between contractions. Write this down.
- Repeat the process for each contraction: When a person misses a contraction or does not time the whole thing, make a note of this.
Every 1–2 hours, review the pattern. If the contractions are getting closer together, becoming more intense, or lasting longer, delivery is potentially imminent.
Using an app
A contraction timer app can work very well, as it only requires a person to push a button. These apps often produce a graph of the contractions over time, making it easier to see the pattern without having to perform any calculations.
When a woman travels to the hospital or birth center, an app is usually the easiest way to time the contractions. Sometimes, contractions slow during the trip to the hospital or when a woman first arrives.
At the hospital
Once the woman arrives at the hospital, a doctor or midwife may suggest a few minutes of fetal monitoring to time contractions. In some situations, they may recommend ongoing fetal monitoring.
Those who decline or do not need such monitoring can continue tracking their contractions if they wish. However, a healthcare provider may be more interested in other information, such as whether the woman feels the urge to push. Most healthcare providers will recommend a cervical dilation check to see how close a woman is to full dilation.
Early in labor, preparing for delivery by getting everything ready may help ease anxiety.
People can do this by double-checking the hospital bag to ensure that it is ready to go. Some women like to eat a nourishing meal or smoothie early in labor to maintain their energy. However, other women lose their appetite.
Every labor is different. What works for one woman might not work for another, and what worked an hour ago might not work now. It may be necessary to experiment with different management strategies.
Some tips for managing labor at home
- walking and moving around as much as possible
- changing positions frequently, as some women find that certain positions make contractions more tolerable
- finding other ways to remain comfortable, such as emptying the bladder frequently or asking for a massage between contractions
- drinking plenty of water
- wearing comfortable clothing
- avoiding fighting the contractions or panicking, which can make the pain worse
- practicing breathing deeply and slowly during contractions
- taking a warm bath or shower
Labor itself is not a medical emergency unless a woman has a serious underlying condition or goes into premature labor. Women may find it helpful to discuss with a doctor or midwife when and under what circumstances to seek medical help and when to go to the hospital or birth center.
In general, anyone who thinks that they might be in labor should call their healthcare provider for advice and to alert them that it could be time.
Many healthcare providers recommend transferring to the hospital or birth center when contractions come every 3–5 minutes for an hour or longer, and each one lasts 45–60 seconds.
However, women who plan not to get an epidural, have no serious underlying medical conditions, or hope to deliver at home may wait longer in consultation with their healthcare provider.
In addition to labor intensifying, other reasons for women to go to the hospital at this stage include:
- their water breaks, and there is brown or black fluid in it
- they develop a fever in labor
- they go into labor early — before about 37 weeks
- they see an object, such as an umbilical cord, coming out of the vagina
If the urge to push appears or the fetus begins crowning, it is important to call 911 and the doctor or midwife.
Tracking contractions can distract women from the pain and help them regain a sense of control over the process.
Delivery will happen whether or not women track their contractions, though, so those who feel overwhelmed by the process can focus on managing their pain and consulting with their healthcare provider instead.