Tips for Timing Contractions

By Published On: July 21st, 2022

With this handy reference guide, you’ll know when it’s time to hit the road.

Updated by Lauren Lisle

Medical Expert: Suzanne Bovone, MD, OB-GYN

As your due date nears, the thought of when—and how—labor will start can become consuming. For first-time moms, you don’t know what to expect and have to rely on the tried-and-true methods of monitoring signs of labor progress, including tracking contractions.

Even if you hate math, it’s almost impossible not to start counting and analyzing when you feel that first contraction come and go. But what exactly are you looking for in early labor, and when will you know it’s the real deal?

While many experienced moms may say, “Oh, you’ll just know,” you may need something more tactical in the hours or days before the birth of your baby. To help eliminate confusion (and provide some light reading material to accompany your pregnancy insomnia), keep scrolling for pointers on timing contractions.

How to Determine When They’re the Real Thing

Early on in your pregnancy, you’ll hear about Braxton Hicks contractions, and how to identify them. Often referred to as “practice contractions,” these false-labor contractions help prepare your body for true labor, but they can make it hard to discern when it’s really go-time, and are only part of the full equation.

“You don’t know if contractions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ without checking your cervix over a period of time to see if they are causing cervical change,” says Suzanne Bovone, MD, OB-GYN at Obstetrics and Gynecology, part of Pediatrix Medical Group in San Jose, California. “For example, if you are monitored and contractions are detected, it doesn’t mean you are in labor. If [the contractions] are not changing your cervix over a few hours, then they are considered Braxton Hicks or prodromal labor. True labor contractions will change your cervix over time.”

These true contractions will also come in regular, coordinated intervals that increase in intensity and won’t fade away with movement or if you change positions. If you visualize a wave, a  contraction will build, reach a peak and then subsides in a similar pattern that repeats over and over again.

Persistent repetition is what moms should look for if they start to feel what appears to be contractions.

“If contractions are in a pattern, it is a good idea to lay down and time them,” says Dr. Bovone. “Best to empty your bladder, lie down, hydrate and see if the contractions resolve. If they do not go away and you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, then call your doctor. Preterm contractions can be due to labor, a bladder or uterine infection, or dehydration, all of which need an evaluation. If you are beyond 37 weeks pregnant, it is OK to stay home if you can tolerate the discomfort, but talk to your doctor about when to come into the hospital.”

How to Measure the Duration and Frequency

Timing contractions is a game of numbers and can be achieved using a few different methods. Apps like Contraction Timer and Full Term make it easy to gather the important details and analyze the results over time. You can also use the stopwatch function on a smartphone, a digital watch, and classic pen and paper to calculate the duration (how long your contractions last) and the frequency (how close they are together).

Here are the steps to take if not using an app:

1| When you feel a contraction start, note the time.

2| When you feel the contraction end, note the time.

3| Calculate the difference between the beginning and the end of the contraction to find the duration.

4| When you feel the next contraction, jot down the time once more.

5| Note the time between the end of your first contraction and the beginning of your second contraction to find the frequency.

6| Repeat these steps to see if your contractions develop a regular pattern.

You don’t need to time every contraction (whew!), but keep track of them often enough to notice when the intervals change. In determining when to start paying close attention to your contractions, Dr. Bovone suggests following the 5-1-1 rule. “When your contractions are every five minutes, lasting for one minute, for one hour, call your doctor or come to the hospital,” she says.

The possible exception to this rule is if this is not the first time you’ve given birth, explains Dr. Bovone. “It’s still good to time your contractions as noted above, but second and third babies may come quicker. If your doctor checks your cervix in the office and you are already dilated (which is very common with subsequent pregnancies), then you may consider going into the hospital sooner.”

She also notes that if your water breaks, you should go ahead and seek medical advice from your provider even if contractions haven’t picked up or seem irregular because of an increased risk of infection.

“Some doctors allow patients to stay home for a few hours if their water breaks to see if labor starts. Others want patients to come into the hospital right away. It also depends on how far along you are in pregnancy and if you are Group B Strep (GBS) positive or negative. Make sure to ask your doctor what they recommend.”

Other telling signs to look out for are the outward effects progressing contractions can have on a soon-to-be mom’s state: Grimacing in the face, breathing deeply through surges and naturally stopping conversation during contractions can also signal it might be time to leave sooner than later.

When you’re (somewhat) positive that the time has come, remember to grab the hospital bag, take a few more deep breaths, and trust your body. Whether or not your calculations are accurate, it won’t be long before your new baby arrives.