Everything You Need to Know About Contractions

This post is a guest post with Molly from Bloomlife--the Smart Pregnancy Tracker. Thank-you for supporting the sponsors that help keep Momma Society going. :)

At some point in your pregnancy you may look down at your bump and realize that your uterus has a whole other job than just carrying around your little one. It has to help get that baby out of your body!  Moms and pushing may get all the glory in the birth scenes of movies but uterine contractions are the real star of the show (ok, you’re pretty awesome too).

So let’s give contractions a little bit of love and run through all the things you could possibly want to know about them.

what do contractions feel like

Braxton Hicks vs. Labor Contractions

Contractions don’t wait until the big day to get started. Chances are you will start getting Braxton Hicks contractions towards the end of your 2nd trimester. You may feel them, you might not. Both scenarios are totally normal!

The fundamental difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and labor contractions is the end result.  By definition, labor contractions cause cervical change. Put another way: labor contractions = baby.

Braxton Hicks contraction, on the other hand, is a bit of a catch-all term for all other non-labor contractions. Sometimes they are referred to as false labor. Sometimes they are considered “warm up” contractions - toning and flexing the muscle every now and then to get the body ready for labor. Sometimes they can remind you to slow down and take care of yourself - stress or dehydration can bring on more Braxton Hicks contractions, similar to how other muscles in your body twitch in these conditions. If you experience more Braxton Hicks contractions than usual, take a break, drink water and remember to be kind to your pregnant self.

Contractions | Mom in Labor | Natural Birth | Unmedicated birth | Bloomlife

An especially “twitchy” uterine muscle can get the lovely nickname of irritable uterus. (I know, we hate that term too.) Even this condition can fall into the “it’s totally normal” category but you should discuss with your doctor if you have concerns.

How can I tell Braxton Hicks from Labor Contractions?

Since you should not try to check your own cervix at home, you’ll need to rely on a few tricks to assess your contraction status.

  • Regularity of contractions

    • Braxton Hicks contractions are sporadic and irregular in their pattern and timing (see below for how to time contractions)

    • Labor contractions sync up - becoming regular in their pattern and start to get closer together.

  • Changes with movement (or lack of movement)

    • There’s no stopping the labor train. If you change positions or sit and rest and contractions continue, chances are, baby’s on the way.

  • Changes in strength of contractions

    • Non-labor, Braxton Hicks contractions will eventually weaken or stop altogether

    • Labor contractions continue to intensify.

  • Location of the contraction sensations

    • Braxton Hicks are often only felt in the front or in isolated spots.

    • Labor contractions typically start in the back and move to the front. The sensation is often more “wave-like” across your uterus.

Find a helpful infographic on Braxton Hicks vs. labor contractions here.

Contractions | Mom in Labor | Natural Birth | Unmedicated birth | Bloomlife

When should I go to the hospital?

Laboring at home as long as possible has so many benefits. Many hospitals and birth centers even recommend staying at home through early labor and to wait until active labor to go in. Often they will give you a handy trick to follow for knowing when active labor starts: the 5-1-1 rule.

5-1-1 means that your contractions are 5 minutes apart, lasting for 1 minute and you’ve been recording contractions for at least 1 hour.

Contractions | Mom in Labor | Natural Birth | Unmedicated birth | Bloomlife

You may hear a variation of this rule of thumb (4-1-1 or even 3-1-1). Since every pregnancy (and care team) is different, it’s best to talk to your care provider about their recommendations.

Contractions | Mom in Labor | Natural Birth | Unmedicated birth | Bloomlife

How do I time contractions?

Timing contractions relies on a few data points: the start of one contraction, the end of that contraction, and the start of the next contraction.

Contractions | Mom in Labor | Natural Birth | Unmedicated birth | Bloomlife

From these measurements, you can measure duration (How long are they lasting?) and frequency (How far apart are they?)

You can use the stopwatch feature on your phone and a pen and paper. Or test out the tons of apps and app features that serve as contraction timers. Nearly all of the basic contraction timer apps require a stopwatch feature so you will still need to hit a start button and stop button as contractions come and go. Or you can have your partner help you time them.

Bloomlife Review Smart Pregnancy Monitor

If that sounds annoying and complicated to you, we have another solution. Let the Bloomlife contraction monitor do the timing for you! It’s a wearable sensor that automatically tracks contractions, safely listening to the uterine muscle as it contracts and reporting it to the connected app. With Bloomlife, you can see each individual contraction in real-time. Bonus: it accurately and automatically times your contractions and shows your contraction pattern and the average duration and frequency of contractions so you can easily communicate with your care team. No stopwatch required!  

One last thing about contractions

Contractions are your friend. They help prepare your body for labor. They help throughout labor to bring your baby into the world. Trust your body. Trust your instincts. You are going to be amazing!

Related:Expecting a Baby? You're Going to Want to Check Out This Smart Pregnancy Tracker

About Bloomlife's Molly Dickens:

Molly Dickens is Head of Content and Community at Bloomlife and writes and edits the publication, Preg U. Molly has her PhD in Physiology and spent over a decade as an academic research scientist slightly obsessed with the colliding worlds of brain science, hormones, stress and the reproductive system. Science is still her jam and she has a tendency to nerd out and dive headfirst into the world of biology when writing about pregnancy and parenting.