When the body is ready, usually between 38 and 42 weeks gestation, it releases hormones that cause the uterus to contract. Contractions help dilate and thin the cervix so that your baby can be born. Contractions also help push the baby through the birth canal.
Braxton Hicks Contractions
Every woman is different, but generally a pregnant woman experiences “fake practice” contractions called Braxton Hicks contractions throughout their pregnancy. Braxton Hicks contractions do not dilate or thin the cervix like real contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions prepare the body for the real thing. Braxton Hicks contractions feel like abdominal tightening. These contractions usually come without pain. They can become uncomfortable at times, but activity and fluids usually relieve the discomfort.
True Labor Contractions
True labor contractions feel much different than Braxton Hicks. The discomfort and pain can be related to an ocean wave; the pressure and discomfort steadily increase and then dissipate. True labor contractions start to follow a pattern and do not go away, regardless of activity. The progress of your labor can somewhat be determined by your contractions. Contractions that follow a pattern of increased intensity and reoccurring closer together indicate that labor is progressing.
There are essentially three phases of labor. Each woman's labor is different and you have no way of predicting how it will progress.
In early labor, contractions are usually mild. This can last for many hours.
Active Phase Labor
The next phase is called the active phase. These contractions cause a great deal of pain and discomfort. This is where most of the “work” is being done. This phase is usually much shorter than early labor, but can still mast many hours.
Transition Phase Labor
The most painful and shortest part of labor is the transition phase. The contractions will be the most intense at this point. This is where all your hard work will pay off, and your baby will be born.
Not everyone has easy access to hospital care. This is another reason why timing your contractions is important. Many women are sent home from the hospital with contractions that are 10 minutes apart, because it can be many hours before they are ready to give birth. Many women are instructed to go to the hospital when contractions are timed approximately 5 minutes apart and last approximately 60 seconds. It’s important to keep in mind that every woman’s situation is different. There may be reasons why your doctor may want you at the hospital sooner.
Timing contractions is relatively simple. It may be a good idea to buy a stopwatch. If your partner is with you when your contractions start, have them do the record keeping for you so you can concentrate on trying to relax during your contractions.
Using a stopwatch will help measure contraction duration. When a contraction begins, activate the stopwatch. When the contraction stops, end the timer. Record the results on paper.
Frequency can be measured by noting the time the contraction starts and end timing when the next contraction starts.
1:00 1:02 1:04 1:06
1:01 1:03 1:05 1:07
In this example, the contractions are two minutes apart because it takes two minutes from the start of one contraction to the start of another. Each contraction does not need to be timed. Monitor and record several contractions until a pattern can be established. Do not start recording again until the contractions change.
When to call your doctor depends on your situation. Many women like to call their doctor when contractions start becoming uncomfortable to notify them that they are in labor. Other factors that play a role include your distance from the hospital or birthing center and any other special needs you may have.