How To Time Your Labor Contractions

Every journey ends at a point, including pregnancy. At the end of this beautiful journey of changes and expectations, your little one would arrive in your arms; right after an important event called labor (induced or not) and, by extension, labor contractions (if you are having a vaginal delivery).


A contraction can be described as a tightening or cramping feeling. In labor, it starts at the back and moves to the front in a wave-like manner, and at the beginning it is similar to a menstrual cramp.

What exactly are labor contractions? What are the different stages of labor? How can I time my contractions?

Keep reading to find out!

What Are Labor Contractions?

Labor contractions are the periodic tightening and relaxation of your uterine muscles as your body prepares for delivery. Thankfully, each contraction is followed by a rest phase which is good for you and your baby

During labor, these contractions spur the release of oxytocin, a hormone that further stimulates contractions. In fact, the actual work of labor is done through a series of repeated contractions.


These contractions move from up to down in the uterus i.e. from the fundus (upper part) to the cervix (lower part). This repeated action pushes the baby towards the birth canal for delivery.

During labor, it is really helpful to time your contractions. This would help you track the stage of labor contraction and prepare to go to the hospital for delivery.

What Are The Stages of Labor Contractions?

Each stage of labor is characterized by two major factors. These are:

  • Degree of cervical dilatation: This refers to how much the cervix has widened during labor.
  • Timing of contraction

A combination of these two factors provide the three distinct stages of labor:

1. Early Labor

During early labor, the cervix has dilated to about 3cm in diameter. At this stage, your contractions are mild are slightly irregular. Each of these contractions may last for 30 – 45 seconds and usually occur 30 minutes apart.

2. Active Labor

At this point, the cervix would have dilated to about 4 – 7 cm. Also, the contractions will be stronger and last for 45 – 60 seconds, with about 3 – 5 minutes interval. During the active labor stage, you should call your health care provider or head to the hospital.


3. Transition

This is the final stage of labor before the birth of your baby. At this point, the cervix is about 8-10 cm wide and contractions are longer and more intense. In fact, these contractions may seem to overlap. It is during this stage that your baby crowns and is ready to be delivered. Each contraction will last for about 60 – 90 seconds with about 2 minutes intervals.

How Long Does Labor Last?

Generally, labor for the first birth lasts for about 12-24 hours. On the other hand, subsequent labors range between 8-10 hours. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that pregnancy and labor is unique to each person and each pregnancy.

Your timelines may vary from everyone else’s.


Important Facts About Timing Contractions

As you time your contractions, here are some really important things to take note of:

  • The start of a contraction
  • The end of a contraction
  • The start of another contraction

Taking note of these three important factors would help you answer important questions about labor and delivery.

Key Terms About Timing Contractions

1. Duration or length of contraction

The duration of a contraction is measured from the beginning of one contraction to the end of the same contraction. To time the duration of your contraction, start your timer immediately you feel the first strain and stop it at the end of the sensation.

Generally, each contraction reaches a peak in intensity somewhere around the midpoint of the duration.

2. Frequency of contraction

The frequency of contractions is the time interval between the start of one contraction and the start of the next contraction. To time the frequency of your contractions, start your timer when the contraction starts and stop it when the next contraction begins.

Now that you know these terms, you can answer the following questions when your midwife asks:

  • “How long is each contraction?” (that is the duration of each contraction);
  • “How far apart are they?” (that is the frequency of each contraction) and
  • “How long have you been feeling them?”

Your answers to these questions form the basis for the 5-1-1 rule.

What Exactly Is The 5-1-1 Rule?

The 5-1-1 rule of thumb helps your midwife or care team to know when you cross the threshold from early labor to active labor.

The timing for the 5-1-1 stats is calculated based on the frequency of your contractions becoming 5 minutes apart, (on average); the duration of your contractions becoming 1 minute long, (on average) and the timing continuing for more than 1 hour.

Some midwives or clinicians may prefer the 4-1-1 or 3-1-1 rule. It is good to know which of these rules is preferred by your midwife or doctor.

A Final Word from Edie & Amy

Yes, contractions can be painful and uncomfortable. However, it is really helpful to look at the big picture!

These contractions are signals that your long-awaited bundle of joy is on the way and would soon arrive. Make sure you keep in touch with your midwife and follow every instruction you are given.

Everything is going to work out fine.


Hanley, G.E., Munro, S., Greyson, D., Gross, M. M., Hundley, V., Spiby, H., Janssen P. A. (2016). Diagnosing onset of labor: a systematic review of definitions in the research literature. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. Accessed on 24th June, 2021 from

McEvoy A, Sabir S. (2021). Physiology, Pregnancy Contractions. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Accessed on 24th June, 2021 from