True labor contractions give some signs that labor has started. We’ll talk how to time early contractions and what to watch for know you have real labor contractions — AND what to do if you’re sent home from the hospital in early labor.
True labor contractions have some definite signs of labor approaching. Of course, it’s different for everyone, so let’s read on to see what you watch for.
Cliff Notes: TRUE labor contractions from your uterus cause your cervix to open. Contractions prior to that just soften your cervix and prepare it for labor. True labor contractions increase in location (more broad across your belly/back), intensity (more painful) and get closer together. I can’t recommend this course any more to really understand it.
Labor SOUNDS like it will be really obvious. However, a lot of you might wonder as you feel aches and pains if “that” is “it”.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — TV and movies have NOT done us a favor in our impression of how labor starts and progresses. Much like everything, labor in real life is a lot different than how it is on TV.
Of course, not EVERYONE feels labor in the same way.
But, these are some pretty good points for the majority of people. Want to know more about labor — don’t miss my page Am I in Labor Quiz.
**You might wonder why I am an expert in this area (as you should) — it just so happens I’ve been a labor nurse since 2001 — so after helping over a thousand pregnant women — I think “expert” fits!
True Labor Contractions:
** These are not hard and fast rules, pay attention to your body, your doctor and your gut. As always, never take the advice of something you read or hear, over the advice of your doctor. **
True labor contractions are only great when you’re after 36-37 weeks. Prior to that, early labor contractions can be problematic (you want to go the full forty) and you will want to call your doctor. Be sure to ask your doctor what you should do when you feel contractions!
True Labor vs False Labor Table
|TRUE Labor||FALSE Labor|
|Contractions||About 2-5 minutes apart and getting closer together.||Only occasional, don’t get closer together.|
|Pain||Gets more intense as time goes on||Does not get more intense, may taper|
|Location||Extends from back to front||May only feel in just one spot, or back or front.|
|Other Symptoms||May have some GI involvement.||Usually just feel some pains, nothing else|
I actually have a whole podcast on knowing if you’re going into labor
Early Labor Contractions
Contractions will start out pretty randomly — but with TRUE labor, you’ll want to see them slowly form into some sort of a pattern.
On your first, we’d like to see the contractions every 2-3 minutes, on subsequent babies you’d probably want to head to the hospital when they’re about every 5 minutes (only because labor progresses quicker). I once had a patient come in because she’d had two contractions. I was like, “every two minutes?” She said, “no — just two — but they’re really hard!”
Ala casa, my friend (that means to home, in case you’re not bilingual like me).
** Early contractions can SOFTEN your cervix, and make you lose your mucus plug.
Related Post: Labor Vocabulary
What does a contraction feel like?
Most women say they feel like cramps, I have a whole post on what a contraction feels like.
True Contraction Timing
Do they have to last exactly a minute — no — but most PRODUCTIVE contractions last about a minute – meaning 45 to 90 seconds. Short ones usually aren’t going anywhere big (Chapter three in my prenatal class gives all the info on how to exactly count contractions).
And like I said above, you want them every 2-5 minutes (depending on what # baby it is — you’ll want to ask your doctor about the specifics he/she recommends).
Wanting to time them, but not wanting to use your phone (I never did) something like this will work.
Pro tip: You’ll want to make SURE that baby is still moving, even if you’re contraction — check out my post on kick counts for more info on that!
How will I know when I’m having true contractions?
True labor radiates. It will usually involve your entire torso. Like someone has wrapped a scarf of pain around your midsection. Usually starting in the back and radiating towards the front (or it can go the opposite). If it’s JUST in the back or on a certain area of your belly, it may well not be quite the real deal.
Of course, I discussed a lot of this on my Signs of Labor post — it won’t be JUST contractions. Usually, there’s some other fun going on also, like diarrhea, possibly even your water breaking — so, click over there to learn more about the different signs of labor.
If you ARE having True Contractions, be sure to pack your hospital bag.
The big question in most people’s minds is
How do you know they are true labor contractions?
The answer is cervical change. And usually about a centimeter/hour. If you were to come to the hospital and be only 1-3 cm we’d probably have you walk for an hour and then re-check you. If you haven’t moved a centimeter, it likely means you’re not in true labor and your time would be better spent at home (learn more about vaginal exams in labor).
Now, many women feel dejected after that.
Why being sent home from the hospital isn’t a bad thing
But let me be the FIRST to tell you that this isn’t a bad thing:
- You’ve made sure baby is safe and sound inside (babies sometimes move less as you go into labor, so that can be disconcerting)
- You might have NO idea what a contraction is and isn’t and when you’re on the monitor it can help show you that (or you can use a Bloom Monitor — find-out more here)
- You know you’re safe to labor at home for a bit.
- By pushing things, and being stuck in the hospital longer, you are increasing your chance of a c-section (be sure to check out my post on natural labor that gives tips and tricks for that!)
Enjoy some natural labor at home!
I have to say that deciding if you’re in true labor can be harder than you imagine. I mean, sometimes you can’t even tell if your water broke or you peed. It’s actually one of the best reasons to take a prenatal class.
What to do before you’re in real labor?
So, please don’t feel bad if we send you home from Labor and Delivery. Here are a few things to do at home to wait for real labor to get to your uterus (and sometimes that takes a while).
- Take a shower. Let that water run on your back and it will really help it feel better. Some nurses recommend a bath — but a) You don’t want the water too hot in a bath, you’ll cook your baby. b) It’s tough to get in and out of the bath 9 months pregnant (depending on your type of tub) — so I always recommend a shower — but a bath can be nice too!
- Get some housework done. Do it now, honestly. Distract yourself and be productive. Win-win.
- Use a warm pack where it hurts and try to get some rest. Use a microwaveable heating pad just warmed up (not hot) for your back or hips to help you try to relax.
- Eat. I wouldn’t gorge myself on the giant burrito from your local Mexican restaurant, but I’d eat something. Something you love. Once you get to the hospital, often, your doctor won’t let you eat.
- Sit on your yoga ball — this is my personal favorite (pick a larger one — like this). I think that rotating your hips on a yoga ball can really help that baby descend. Kind of like drilling it down to find the right position.
- Move around. Take a walk, dance, whatever speaks to you. But moving around will help distract you as well as finding new positions for that baby to drop into the ol’ pelvis.
- TV, Movies, Facebook, apps. Seriously, laze around. Binge watch. Tell your family I told you to. 🙂
Of course, things besides labor can be a reason to head into the hospital — and I go through all of that in my free beginning prenatal class:
Related Post: Labor Epidural
FAQ’s about Labor Contractions
Well, I guess. If you’re thinking you’re going to go to the hospital and push on the monitor to make us think you’re contracting so that you’ll have your baby, it’s not a good move.
You could MAYBE trick us on one or two contractions (although, a smart nurse will know what you’re doing). But, to sit there and do that over and over — it’s going to get real old.
And honestly, even if you’re contracting, but your cervix isn’t opening — we still won’t keep you as you’d be considered in early labor.
While I talk about that in my prenatal class, I still recommend you talk to your doctor to ask them their opinion on that. Much of it is based on how far away the hospital is and any past history you have.
Cervixes can open with what seems like no contractions. However, most people have some very pain contractions as their cervix starts to open beyond 3 centimeters or so.
Everyone’s pain tolerance is different, so some people might not really “feel” small contractions. But, it is also likely that those contractions aren’t causing much change in your cervix.
While we mostly use the words “early labor” for this- it is just contractions that aren’t making your cervix open, or at least open very quickly. In order to be in “active” labor we’d like to either see you past 6 cm or opening at least a centimeter per hour.
That isn’t to say that prodromal labor isn’t painful. It can be quite painful.
Well, they usually start pretty small. I’m not sure if you want to know the hormonal things that cause it — but usually, they start because your baby and your uterus have finally decided they’re done with each other.
In early labor, the position of the baby can play a role in where/how you feel contractions. Often people feel them more in one spot or one side, but that area increases as labor progresses.
Early labor will go, and stop, and then go again. This is early labor, not TRUE labor. True labor will progress and progress.
The toco is the monitor we use at the hospital to measure contractions. It goes on your belly and shows us when you’re having them. It doesn’t exactly show you how strong they are — but should show when you’re having them.
If you have a toco on and you feel like you’ree having them, but they aren’t showing, let your nurse know. She may need to reposition it.
Anyway, as I’ve said before — false labor pains often progress into true labor. And the BEST thing you can do is stay REALLY well hydrated and wait for the labor fairy to call you number. 🙂
And this page — Am I in labor — has ALL of the awesome links for if you’re in the real deal, and more!
If you liked this post — check out all my delivery tips at the bottom (you can find all my pregnancy posts here). Be sure to sign up for my pregnancy email list. Whether you’re 4 weeks or 40, I can help hold your hand during this pregnancy and follow you along towards your due date!
This post was originally written in 2016, but has been updated.