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Contractions in labour

If you’re a first-time mom, you’re probably wondering what labour will feel like and how you can recognise it when it starts. So here’s a guide to the different types of contractions and the right moment to go to the hospital.


Contractions are reactions in your body telling you it’s time for your baby to come out. Learn about the types of contractions, what they mean and when it’s time to give birth.

What are contractions?

Contractions are your muscles (at the top of your womb) pushing your baby downwards towards the birth canal. During a contraction, your womb tightens and then relaxes. You may have already felt contractions, particularly towards the end of your pregnancy. As labour gets more intense, your contractions tend to last longer, feel stronger and more frequent.

What do contractions feel like?

Contractions can feel different to every woman. Contractions can sometimes feel like a stronger version of period pain. They can be described as cramping or a tightening sensation that starts in the lower back and will often move in a wave-like motion towards the abdomen. During a contraction, the abdomen becomes hard to the touch. As labour progresses, the contractions will last longer, with frequent pains. These pains will peak just before the contractions, and ease off before starting again.

The different types of contractions and what they mean

There are 3 types of contractions, and experiencing them doesn’t always mean you’re about to give birth. Make sure you report any contractions you feel to your doctor so that she can determine the cause.These can occur any time after the middle of your pregnancy, or maybe not at all:

  1. False labour contractions– also known as Braxton Hicks, these irregular uterine contractions are quite normal. They are most common during your third trimester, but may occur in your second trimester. Braxton Hicks contractions are often described as a tightening in the abdomen that comes and then goes.
    Braxton Hicks contractions do not:

        • Increase in frequency (don’t get closer together)
        • Increase with walking
        • Increase in length (usually less than a minute)
        • Feel stronger over time

    In true labour (please see number 3), the contractions feel stronger as they progress. Braxton Hicks do not. Braxton Hicks contractions might help to prepare your cervix, but don’t actually cause cervical dilation or effacement, which do happen during labour.

    1. Preterm labour contractions -if you’re getting a contraction every 10 to 12 minutes for more than an hour, you may be having preterm labour contractions. Regular contractions before 37 weeks may be a sign of premature labour. If these contractions are accompanied by vaginal bleeding, diarrhea, or a watery discharge, call your doctor immediately.
    2. Labour contractions– contractions can feel different to women as well as from one pregnancy to another. Labour contractions usually cause discomfort or a dull ache in your back and lower abdomen, as well as pressure in the pelvis.
      Labour contractions are:

      • Increasingly longer, more regular, more frequent and more painful – with each following contraction. In other words, every contraction is stronger than the last.

      You’ll know you are experiencing labour contractions if:

      • They increase in intensity and become harder to suppress or control.
      • They aren’t relieved by a change in position.
      • The contractions become more frequent, intense and generally more regular.

When is it time to go to the hospital?

Depending on your doctor, you might be told to go to the hospital, or wait. Usually, frequency, intensity and regularity of contractions determine whether you’re in labour or not.

5 signs indications you need to go to hospital

  1. Contractions are increasing in frequency and pain.
  2. Contractions are between 5 and 10 minutes apart.
  3. If your water breaks (if the fluid is stained dark, greenish brown it’s certainly time to go).
  4. If you experience vaginal bleeding.
  5. You can no longer walk or talk during contractions.

How long is the average labour contraction?

It depends on your stage of labour:

  1. Early labour contraction usually lasts about 30 to 45 seconds.
  2. Active labour contractions become increasingly more intense, frequent and longer, lasting around 40 to 60 seconds each.
  3. Transitional labour contractions suddenly pick up in intensity and frequency, with each lasting about 60 to 90 seconds.
  4. Pushing and delivery: contractions in this second stage of labour last 60 to 90 seconds, but are sometimes further apart and possibly less painful.

Know your baby’s
due date

When was the first day of your last
menstrual period?

Know your baby’s
due date

RESULT Estimated due date (40 week full term)

Continue to read more All dates are approximations and should only be considered as a reference.

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Our team of experts is ready to answer your questions and support you on your journey from pregnancy to toddler hood. For more information and relevant advice, please contact us between 9am-6pm from Saturday to Thursday.