What Are Contractions?

They are a key part of pregnancy but may not indicate you are going into labor

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Contractions are a normal part of pregnancy, particularly toward the end. Consistent contractions are one of the main signs that you are in labor. However, sometimes you may think you are going into labor when you are not. These types of contractions are called false labor contractions—generally referred to as Braxton Hicks contractions.

Pregnant woman suffering from back pain, man massaging her shoulders

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Types

True labor contractions normally come within 24 hours after your water breaks. They involve muscles in your womb tightening and then relaxing. This may feel like severe period pains to some people.

If you put your hand on your abdomen, you will feel it getting harder when these muscles tighten, and when the pain eases, you will feel this hardness ease.

These contractions are pushing your baby down and also opening the entrance to your womb—the cervix—so that your baby can come through.

Your due date is not an exact science. Normal term labor may start any time between three weeks before and two weeks after the due date you have been given.

False Labor Contractions

False labor contractions, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions, are common, and normally felt during the second and third trimesters.

During this time, you may feel your abdomen tighten for about half a minute a couple of times a day or feel it harden and remain tense for several seconds. These contractions can be painful and may be mistaken for labor.

Signs that you may be experiencing false labor contractions are that they are:

  • Only felt in the front of the abdomen
  • Do not have a pattern or do not come at regular intervals
  • Do not get longer or stronger
  • Do not start to get more frequent 
  • Stop when you rest or stop walking
  • Stop if you change your position
  • Are not accompanied by bleeding, leaking fluid, or decreased fetal movement

You may be able to see whether you are experiencing false labor contractions by timing your contractions and seeing if they continue when you are resting and drinking water.

If they do not start to come more often, and if rest and water make the contractions go away, they are likely false labor contractions. 

Exactly what causes Braxton Hicks contractions is unknown; however, certain factors are thought to trigger them. These are:

  • If you are very active
  • Having a full bladder
  • Sexual activity
  • If you are dehydrated

While false labor contractions are not uncommon and not normally a cause for concern, contact your healthcare provider if you are worried or unsure what to do.

Signs and Symptoms

Contractions often begin long before you give birth and are one of the strongest indicators that labor is on its way. As your labor progresses, contractions will be more frequent and get longer and stronger.

Not everyone will experience the same symptoms, but some common signs of true labor are:

  • Contractions that last about 30 to 70 seconds
  • Contractions that come at regular intervals 
  • Contractions that get closer together as time goes on
  • Moving around or resting does not change contractions
  • You are unable to talk to other people or laugh at jokes
  • Pain starting at the back and moving to the front

Your contractions will be different depending on what stage of labor you are in.

Early Labor

Sometimes referred to as the latent phase, your contractions may be far apart during the early stages of labor and may not increase in intensity.

During this stage, your cervix will start to dilate and begin to thin out, shorten, and soften. Contractions help with this process.

Every person will experience labor differently. For some, early labor will only last for a few hours, but some may be in early labor for most of a day or more.

Active Labor

Your contractions will become regular in how strong and frequent they are. This is the stage where it is generally recommended that you go to the hospital or birth center.

You may be told to use the “411” guide to tell you when to go to the hospital. This is where contractions are strong and coming every four minutes, last one minute, and have been ongoing for at least one hour.

Contractions are likely to be so strong and painful that you can’t talk, concentrate, or sleep through them.

Complications

If you are experiencing contractions before 37 weeks, this could indicate preterm labor. However, this does not automatically mean that you will have a preterm birth.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, these preterm contractions will stop on their own for about 3 in 10 people.

Contact your healthcare provider if you are experiencing contractions before 37 weeks. They will determine if your contractions are a sign of active preterm labor.

When to Call Your Healthcare Provider

While not all are causes for concern, you should also contact your healthcare provider if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Leaking amniotic fluid
  • Decreased fetal movement
  • Any vaginal bleeding other than light spotting
  • Regular, painful contractions every 5 to 10 minutes for 60 minutes

Coping

Here are ways to help you cope with the pain you may experience due to contractions during labor.

Early Labor

The key to managing contractions at this stage, when you will likely be at home, is to alternate rest with activity. Some ways to cope include:

Active Labor

As you go into active labor, you are likely to be setting off for the hospital or birthing center, or, if you are having a home birth, you will be waiting for your birthing team to arrive.

Ways to cope with your contractions during this stage include:

  • Keeping your mind busy through reading, watching TV, or listening to music
  • Moving around and changing positions often
  • Taking a warm bath or shower
  • Putting a cool cloth on your forehead or lower back
  • Making noise
  • Practicing visualization
  • Meditating
  • Using a birthing ball for gentle movement
  • Getting a back massage from your labor coach or partner

A Word From Verywell

Remember that everyone experiences contractions differently. If you are worried about what contractions will be like or how you will cope with the pain, then speak to your healthcare provider. They can talk you through all your options and concerns so that you can be well prepared before your labor begins.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Am I in labor? Updated March 2020

  2. Cleveland Clinic. True vs. false labor. Updated January 1, 2018.

  3. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to tell when labor begins. Updated May 2020

  4. Raines DA, Cooper DB. Braxton Hicks contractions. StatPearls. Updated November 18, 2020.

  5. MedlinePlus. Strategies for getting through labor. Updated September 2018

  6. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Preterm labor and birth. Updated October 2020