What You Need to Know About Contractions

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 21, 2022
3 min read

Once you reach week 37 of your pregnancy, it becomes a waiting game until delivery. When you feel those first contractions, you'll know it's "go" time ... or maybe not.

Your baby might trick you before the main event with a few practice contractions. You'll think it's time, only to have your doctor tell you that you're not ready to deliver yet.

If you learn what contractions feel like and how to tell the real ones from the fakes, you'll keep yourself from heading to the hospital before it's time.

During labor, you push your baby out of your womb (uterus) and into the world. Contractions help you do that.

During each contraction, the muscles in your uterus tighten and then release. This muscle-flexing softens and widens (dilates) the opening to your uterus, called the cervix. It also pushes your baby down and out of the uterus. As your cervix opens, your baby moves into the birth canal and into position for delivery.

Contractions feel like a tightening or pressure in your belly that lasts for 30 to 70 seconds. Labor is different for every woman. Contractions can range from crampy, like a bad period or severe diarrhea cramps, to intensely painful. Some women also feel an ache or pain in their back.

As labor progresses, contractions get more intense and painful. You may not be able to talk during them.

Many pregnant women feel contractions and think they're going into labor, but it turns out to be a false alarm. Braxton Hicks contractions got their name from the English doctor who first described them in the 1800s. They're like a practice run to soften and thin your cervix and prepare your body for labor.

Although you can have fake contractions at any time during your pregnancy, they're more common in your last trimester, which adds to the confusion. Braxton Hicks contractions can feel so much like the real thing that you think you're in labor.

Braxton Hicks contractions are similar to real ones in a lot of ways, but there are differences.

Real contractions come at regular intervals and get closer together and more intense as time passes. At first, you may have contractions once every 10 minutes, then once every 5 minutes, and so on. Braxton Hicks contractions don't have any set pattern. They come and go at random.

False contractions don't get more intense. Real ones gradually increase in strength.

Usually you'll feel Braxton Hicks contractions in one area of your belly. When you get up and walk, change position, or lay down and rest, they'll go away. True labor pains can spread throughout your belly, as well as to your lower back. And they won't stop, no matter what you do.

Other signs that you're in real labor include:

  • Pressure in your lower belly
  • Brown or reddish discharge from your vagina, called bloody show
  • A trickle or rush of water from your vagina

If you're not sure which type of contractions you're having, time them and note whether they get closer together. Change position, rest, and see if they stop. Or drink a glass of water. Dehydration can trigger Braxton Hicks contractions.

Talk to your doctor before you have contractions so you know what to expect. Ask about the signs of labor and the difference between real contractions and Braxton Hicks.

Call your doctor if you think you're in labor. Even if you're wrong, it's better to be on the safe side.

One way to tell whether you're in labor is to look for the 5-1-1 pattern. True labor contractions will come once every 5 minutes, last for at least 1 minute, and keep going for at least 1 hour.

Call your doctor right away or go into the office if you have any of these signs:

  • Bleeding from your vagina
  • Leaking of fluid -- a sign that your water has broken
  • A change in your baby's movements, fewer than 10 movements in 2 hours
  • Regular contractions before your 37th week of your pregnancy