How to Time Your Contractions

Timing is everything when it comes to labor, but do you know how to track contractions correctly? Here’s how to monitor contraction spacing and duration, which lets you know when to head to the hospital.

pregnant woman holding alarm clock
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Contractions happen when your uterus tightens in preparation for delivering your baby. Timing the duration of contractions, as well as the space between them, helps parents-to-be track the stages of labor.

But whether you're using a stopwatch or a timer app, improperly monitoring contractions might mean spending extra time in the hospital before your birth, rather than relaxing at home. Or you might cut it close and get to your hospital or birthing center just in the nick of time.

Here's the scoop on exactly how to measure your labor contractions so you can give your health care provider an accurate picture of your labor progress.

When should you start timing contractions?

"You should time from the start of one contraction to the start of the next contraction," says Paul du Treil, M.D., director of maternal and child health at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. That indicates how far apart your contractions are coming. "Generally, the early contractions are pre-labor kind of stuff, and may last 20 to 30 seconds at most." Dr. du Treil says. "But when they start lasting closer to a minute, and they're consistently about four minutes apart, and they're consistently that way for an hour—that's when you're in labor."

How long will each contraction last?

If you're in labor, your contractions will last for about a minute each. But while the timing of it is important, so is the intensity. "The most important part is the energy of the contraction, not just the timing of it," says Siobhan Kubesh, a certified midwife with OB-GYN North in Austin. "You need to pay attention to the length of it, but you need to also pay attention to whether the energy is increasing for each one."

When should you head to the hospital?

The general advice has been to wait until the contractions have been five minutes apart for an hour before you call and make your way to the hospital. But talk with your health care provider to figure out what works best for you. "Each provider will have a slightly different approach, depending on the individual risk factors of pregnancy," Kubesh says. "Some first-time moms may have a long labor, while for a second baby a woman may not be aware of the intensity until much closer to transition." Your location may also come into play—if you're living almost an hour away from the hospital, your doctor may recommend leaving sooner rather than later.

What are the warning signs when timing contractions?

Let your doctor know if your labor contractions seem wrong. If you can't time the gap between contractions because there is no gap, it's time to call the doctor. "If it's a continuous pain, rather than a pattern of coming and going, that could signify a problem," says Dr. du Treil. If that's the case, don't delay in calling the doctor.

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