Labor Contractions

Contractions are one of the first signs an expectant mother gets when labor is beginning. Contractions come in two forms: Braxton Hicks contractions and the real thing, or true labor contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions are often mistaken for real contractions, as they are very similar.

Braxton Hicks contractions are described as weak, inconsistent, and irregular, and they do not increase in intensity of duration or pain over time, nor do they get closer over time. Real contractions, on the other hand, do get closer together over time, are painful, and last longer as time passes. Learn more about Braxton Hicks Contractions here.

Labor contractions begin when your body releases a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin causes uterine tightening, and when true labor begins the abdomen repeatedly becomes hard and then relaxes. Most women describe contractions as a dull ache in the lower back and lower abdomen, accompanied by pressure in the pelvic area. Contractions are known to move in “wave-like” motions, going from top to the bottom of the uterus. True labor contractions are extremely uncomfortable, but the expectant mother is able to relax in between them.

Timing Labor Contractions

If you think you are past false labor and are beginning true labor, it’s important to start counting or timing your contractions. The best method of doing this is simply writing it down on a piece of paper. Draw a chart that looks like this:

Contraction # Start Time Duration of Contraction
1. 3:30pm 45 seconds
2. 3:40pm 45 seconds
3. 3:45pm 50 seconds
4. 3:50pm 50 seconds

Having a chart that is ready to go is a great way to stay calm during those initial contractions. Timing your contractions is also a great tool for your health care provider, so try to remember to grab your results before heading to the hospital.

Thankfully there is always a rest period (even if it’s only a few minutes) between contractions. Both you and your baby need this time to rest in preparation for labor and delivery. When your contractions are five minutes apart lasting for one hour, you should head into the hospital!

True Labor vs. False Labor

One of the biggest confusions many expectant mothers face is telling the difference between true labor and false labor. The chart below describes the specific characteristics of both true and false labor contractions. The key to distinguishing true contractions from false contractions is cervical change. If your cervix is changing, that is the definition of labor!

Characteristic True Labor False Labor
Frequency Regular, usually happens four to six minutes apart as they become closer together. Irregular, don’t show signs of consistency or becoming closer together
Strength Consistently increase in strength as time goes on; vaginal pressure likely to increase Weak, usually do not gain strength as time goes on, and can begin strong and then weaken as time passes
Pain Starts in the back and moves forward Starts in the back and moves forward
Changing Positions Changing positions has no effect on pain, strength, or frequency Inconsistent—contractions may stop or slow down when you walk, lie down, or change positions in any way


This page was last updated on 06/2017

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