How to Know if You’re Having Real Contractions
Feeling tightening or squeezing sensations in your belly? Wondering if those are real contractions signaling the start of labor? Here are some tips to help you figure it out.
- Real contractions feel like strong tightening or squeezing of the uterus that comes and goes. They increase in strength and frequency as labor progresses.
- Braxton Hicks contractions are often irregular, do not increase in intensity, and go away with rest and hydration.
- Time your contractions – real labor contractions will become regular and closer together over time.
- Changing positions or activity does not make real contractions go away.
- Real contractions get more intense and last longer as labor progresses.
What Are Contractions?
Contractions are the tightening and shortening of the muscles in the uterus. This happens throughout pregnancy as the uterus grows and prepares for labor.
Toward the end of pregnancy, the contractions help thin out and open up the cervix to get it ready for the baby to pass through. Contractions that cause the cervix to dilate and efface (thin out) signal the start of true labor.
Real Labor Contractions vs. Braxton Hicks
So how do you know if the contractions you’re feeling are the real deal or just more practice contractions known as Braxton Hicks? Here are some key differences:
- Regularity – Real contractions become regular and predictable, happening about every 5-10 minutes. Braxton Hicks are irregular and do not follow a set pattern.
- Intensity – Real contractions progressively increase in strength and sensation. Braxton Hicks may be strong at times but do not consistently get more intense.
- Duration – True labor contractions will last about 30-70 seconds. Braxton Hicks are usually 30 seconds or less.
- Changes with activity – Real contractions keep coming no matter if you change positions or what you’re doing. Braxton Hicks may stop with walking, hydration or rest.
- Cervical change – Only real contractions cause the cervix to dilate and efface which signals active labor. Braxton Hicks do not affect cervical change.
Timing Your Contractions
Timing and tracking your contractions is important to figure out if you are in true labor. Here’s how:
- Use a phone app or stopwatch to time from the start of one contraction to the start of the next one.
- Track how long each contraction lasts.
- Note if there is a regular pattern emerging over the course of an hour.
- Real labor contractions will get closer together and more frequent. Contractions that stay irregular are likely just Braxton Hicks practice contractions.
Other Signs of Real Labor
Along with contractions, here are some other signs that labor is likely underway:
- Bloody show – Losing the mucus plug from the cervix, which is often tinged with a bit of blood.
- Water breaking – Rupture of the amniotic sac releasing fluid from the uterus.
- Nesting instinct – Sudden urge to clean and organize right before labor.
- Backache – Lower back pain that may radiate around to the front.
- Menstrual cramps – Contractions may feel like stronger menstrual cramps.
- Pelvic pressure – Feeling of heaviness and cramping in the vagina and rectum.
When to Call Your Doctor
If you think you are having real labor contractions, call your healthcare provider when:
- Contractions are coming regularly every 5-10 minutes
- Contractions have been increasing in strength and duration for at least 1 hour
- Your water breaks
They can confirm if you are in active labor and advise if you should go to the hospital. If this is your first baby, you’ll usually be told to come in when contractions are 5 minutes apart for at least an hour. For subsequent pregnancies, you may be told to wait until contractions are even closer together since labor tends to go faster.
How can I tell early labor contractions from late pregnancy aches and pains?
Regular contractions that steadily increase in strength and frequency are likely early labor and not just normal discomforts. Timing them is the best way to tell.
What if I’m not sure if my water broke or if it’s just discharge?
Lie down for 30 minutes then get up to see if more fluid leaks out. If so, it’s likely your water breaking. Or you can put on a pad to see if it turns bright blue from the amniotic fluid.
How long will early labor last before active labor kicks in?
Early labor with irregular mild contractions can last several hours to a few days. Active labor with strong regular contractions usually doesn’t start until your cervix is at least 4 cm dilated.
So in summary, carefully timing your contractions, noting if they increase in intensity, and looking for other labor signs are the best ways to determine if you are having true labor contractions and if baby’s arrival is imminent! Let your healthcare provider know if you think active labor is starting so they can advise you appropriately.