A gush of water, being doubled over in pain, the head of your baby crowning. These are things many women picture when they think of labor. However, for most laboring women, these things take time and many contractions.

Just like an athlete preparing for the Olympics, your body needs a chance to stretch and prepare for birthing a baby. Like warm-up exercises, contractions begin slowly and build in their intensity and frequency the closer you are to welcoming your baby.

Understanding the behavior and timing of contractions during labor can help you to know when it’s best to head to the hospital and also help you to know how far along in the laboring process you are. So, how do you track contractions? We’ve got you covered…

When tracking contractions you’ll need to know a couple of things, namely: when to start and stop the timer, what to record, and the best way to record it?

Starting and stopping the timer

Ask the laboring woman! If they are not on medication, nearly all women can feel the beginning and end of a contraction’s wave of intensity. Start the timer when the contracting woman says she feels the wave beginning and stop it when the pain of the wave recedes.

What to record

You’ll want to note when a contraction starts and when a contraction ends. For tracking purposes, you’ll also probably want to note the length of the contraction (the amount of time from when it started to when it ended) and the frequency of the contractions (the amount of time from the start of one contraction to the start of the next).

Best ways to record the info

There are tons of contraction apps for your smartphone that can do all the logging and calculations for you. If you prefer to write it out, you’ll want to stick with a very simple tracking chart.

Here is a sample contraction timing chart:

Time contraction startedTime contraction endedLength of contractionTime between contractions (frequency)
9 a.m.9:01 a.m.1 min.N/A
9:07 a.m.9:08 a.m.1 min.7 mins.
9:15 a.m.9:21 a.m.1 min.8 mins.

It’s typically advised you head to the hospital when your contractions are about a minute in length, about 5 minutes apart, and this pattern has held for at least an hour.

It’s important to check with your provider in your final weeks of pregnancy about their preferences and when they would like you to contact them. They may want you to go to the hospital sooner if you are high risk, had a previous C-section, or have other complications.

You should also always reach out to your doctor or midwife during your pregnancy if you have any worrisome signs or changes. This might include spotting/bleeding, unexpected intense pain, or fevers/chills.

Contractions are muscle contractions that tighten the top part of the uterus to push the baby downward into the birth canal during labor. They also help to thin the cervix, so that the baby can be delivered.

Contractions are often described as waves, since they build to a peak and then ebb away. Contractions in labor frequently start in the back and move to the front. The abdomen can feel tight during a contraction.

If this is the first time you are giving birth, you may worry that you are confusing Braxton-Hicks contractions (frequently experienced during the second and third trimester) with labor contractions. Signs that you are experiencing Braxton-Hicks contractions include:

  • pain coming and going without getting stronger and closer together
  • pain going away when you change position, drink water, or go to the bathroom

Remember, true contractions typically last around 30 to 70 seconds, and should get more consistent, intense, and frequent as labor progresses.

It’s important to remember that while contractions are painful, they are also anticipated, intermittent, and necessary to bring your baby into this world. Having a supportive birth team can be a huge help getting through labor!

It can be useful to attend a childbirth prep course before the birth of your child. These courses cover the fundamentals of birth and different coping measures that you may find useful during labor.

What feels best during contractions may change as they pick up in intensity and frequency. Most women find that they can achieve some level of relief from the contractions using:

Hospitals can also offer a variety of medicinal options including: IV narcotics, nitrous oxide, and epidurals. You may wish to discuss different options that will be available with your doctor before you go into labor.

It can be helpful to remember that when labor begins, it usually takes awhile to build. You’ll likely have some time to get used to tracking contractions before you’re ready for the hospital.

Remember, when in doubt about whether or not you should head to the hospital, you can always reach out to your medical provider. They’re happy to help you avoid a roadside delivery scenario!