Learn How to Time Contractions

Once you start experiencing contractions, timing them can help indicate how your labor is progressing. Having this information can also help your healthcare provider assess how far along you are, and whether it’s time to head into the hospital or birthing center.

Timing your contractions can also help you figure out whether you are actually in labor, or simply experiencing Braxton Hicks “practice” contractions.

Read on to find out what a contraction actually is, how to easily time your contractions, and when it’s time to head to the hospital.

What Are Contractions?

As labor begins, your cervix starts to dilate (open) and efface (thin out), and the muscles around your uterus contract to help your baby move down and through the birth canal.

A contraction feels like a cramping or tightening that begins in your back and moves around to the front of your body. It can also sometimes feel like pressure in your back or pelvis, similar to menstrual cramps.

Your belly tightens during contractions, and then relaxes and becomes softer in between.

Benefits of Timing Contractions

One benefit of timing contractions is that it can help you tell the difference between true and false labor contractions.

With false labor contractions, the contractions will likely go away with movement, will feel weak and irregular, and won’t increase in frequency over time.

When you have true labor contractions, you will feel them get stronger each time, and they will increase in frequency and duration. True labor contractions won’t go away even if you move or change positions.

Another benefit of knowing how to time your contractions is that you’ll be able to give this information to your healthcare provider, who can then figure out whether it’s time for you to head to the hospital or birthing center, or advise you to stay at home for a little longer.

How to Time Contractions During Labor

Here’s how to time your contractions:

  • Make a note of the time when your first contraction starts (“time” on the table below)
  • Write down how long the contraction lasts (“duration”)
  • Then mark the length of time from the start of the contraction to the start of the next one (“frequency”)
  • Keep noting these times for at least an hour to see if there is a pattern, and to see if the contractions are getting closer together.

Here’s an example of what timing your contractions would look like:

Download our contractions timing chart to more easily time your contractions.

You may prefer to ask your birth partner, midwife, or doula (if you have one) to help time your contractions. That way, you’ll have one less thing to worry about, and your partner may appreciate having something useful to do to support you.

The Difference Between True and False Contractions

True labor contractions—the kind of contractions that lead to the birth of your baby—occur at regular intervals and increase in intensity and frequency over time.

If you have contractions that are irregular and don’t get stronger each time, you may be experiencing what are known as Braxton Hicks contractions or false contractions.

Braxton Hicks contractions are not yet the real thing; they are your body’s way of preparing for labor when the time comes.

Other signs of labor include your water breaking and a clear or pinkish vaginal discharge called the mucus plug.

Reading our article on what contractions feel like might also help you to recognize true labor contractions, but your healthcare provider can tell you for sure.

When to Go to the Hospital

At one of your third trimester checkups, talk to your provider about when she might recommend you head to the hospital, and follow any instructions given. This is also a good chance to ask what number to call in case you think that you are going into labor outside of your provider’s usual hours.

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to call your healthcare provider when you first notice the signs of labor such as your water breaking, the mucus plug discharge, or contractions.

On the phone, be ready to give information about the timing and intensity of your contractions as well as any other symptoms you’ve noticed. For example, you should always call your provider if you notice vaginal bleeding.

Your provider will use all the information to decide whether you should head to the hospital or birthing center, or whether you should stay home a little longer where you may feel more comfortable and relaxed during the early stages of labor.

What Can You Do at Home During Early Labor?

Once contractions begin, you may still have some time to wait at home before your provider tells you to head to the hospital.

While you wait at home, you might like to try to pass the time by doing things like

  • breathing and relaxation exercises
  • going for a walk
  • lying down for a nap
  • taking a shower or a bath
  • listening to relaxing music or watching a movie
  • packing any last-minute things in your hospital bag including your birth plan, if you have one.


  • What do contractions feel like?

Contractions can feel different for each woman, and they can even feel different when compared to a previous labor. Contractions can feel like a dull backache, a pain in the lower abdomen, or pressure in the pelvic region. The feeling can sometimes be similar to that of menstrual or diarrhea cramps.

  • How far apart should contractions be before you go to the hospital?

It might be time to go to the hospital when your contractions are stronger, closer together, and come at regular intervals. Your healthcare provider may have already given you instructions as to when to leave for the hospital. If you’re unsure about when to go, have vaginal bleeding, or if your water breaks, contact your provider immediately.

  • How long do contractions last?

A contraction typically lasts for about 30 to 90 seconds.

  • Are contractions painful in the early stages of labor?

Some women do not feel contractions in the earliest stage of labor at all, whereas others might find the contractions intense but manageable.

It’s perfectly natural to feel anxious about contractions and labor as your due date approaches. Talking to your healthcare provider or your doula about any worries you have can help put your mind at ease.

How we wrote this article

The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment

Giving birthPreparing for childbirth

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