How to Time Your Labor Contractions

pregnant mom on pregnancy ball looking at wrist watch

So you might be in labor, and it feels like this could be the real deal. Contractions are grabbing your attention and just cannot be ignored any longer. It is time to time them … but how do you do this?

The first occasion I learned about timing contractions, it went right over my head. Still, I will do my best to explain how to do so in a simple way, and if you are still confused, I will offer a midwife's favorite contraction timing app because those make everything easier. 

When to Begin Timing

But first, when should you begin timing contractions?

At the beginning of early labor, my number one recommendation is sleep. My second recommendation is to ignore your contractions until you can no longer ignore them. When you get to the point of being unable to ignore the tightening and somewhat uncomfortable sensations of contractions, it is a great idea to time them! Pull out a pen and paper, your notes on your phone, or your contraction timer and track them for thirty to sixty minutes. I do not recommend timing for longer increments than this because it can be highly distracting, and as a care provider, we do not need hours and hours of your contractions being timed. All we need is a snapshot of what is happening timing-wise, and this can usually be achieved within about thirty minutes.

If you use paper and pen or your notes on your phone, here is how you time contractions. First, you should start counting from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next contraction. Then, write down the time each contraction begins and how long it lasts. By doing this, your care provider will be able to see the duration of each contraction, which is how long each contraction lasts, as well as the frequency of your contractions, meaning how long you have in between contractions and how long they are lasting.

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Officially Beginning Labor

What are your providers looking for with this snapshot you are sending them? 

First, we are looking to see if there is any kind of pattern. The most common patterns we will see are contractions that are similar in frequency and duration, slowly getting closer and closer together and longer in duration. Another typical contraction pattern that we see are actual patterns, we might see someone who gets contractions that last for 45 seconds and 60 seconds every other time, or we might see that the contraction frequency is every five minutes, then every seven minutes, then back to every five minutes, alternating consistently. Both types of contraction patterns are common, but there are also uncommon patterns that eventually lead to babies being born. For example, suppose we see contractions short in duration occurring every two to three minutes. In that case, it is commonly a sign of malposition and a baby trying to get into a better position. I have even seen someone have contractions every ten minutes until they give birth, completely throwing away the 4-1-1 rule and proving that every body and baby have their own timing.

The second thing we are looking for is the duration and frequency of contractions. As I mentioned above, there is a rule we call the 4-1-1- rule. Often, we tell birthing individuals that when their contractions are every four minutes and lasting for one minute, and they have done this for over an hour, it is time to head to the hospital, or birth center, or call the midwife to head your way. You will also notice that I mentioned that some individuals never fall into this rule, so listening to one's body is the more important sign that things are getting closer. Still, for many people, birth is imminent if contractions are getting longer, stronger, and closer together. 

Sometimes, someone begins tracking their contractions well before they are too difficult to ignore. Occasionally longer and closer together contractions occur in early labor, but they do not have the strength behind them. 

A suitable care provider will not simply look at your contraction timing as the only sign that you need to be close to your place and providers of birth. Questions should come with the contraction snapshot, like if you are able to talk through contractions, if you are feeling more need for support, if you have to stop and breathe through the contractions, and if there are any signs of things progressing like bloody show, shakes, puking, hot/cold flashes, etc. These questions will give your care provider a better perspective on where things are before anyone moves to change things from how they currently are.

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Why is it Important to Time Contractions?

Contraction timing is essential and can provide significant information for your care providers while caring for you. Knowing your contraction pattern also provides you with great information and will be another tool you can use to determine if you need more support. If you are like I was and timing by yourself, even with my excellent explanation, feels tedious, there are some great apps you can grab that will also do the trick. Some of my tried-and-true favorites are the Contraction Timer and Counter 9m app, Storky Contraction Timer, and the Contraction Timer by Wachanga. Each of these are extremely user-friendly and gets the information needed for both you and your care providers.


Whether you end up timing your contractions or not, remember that you know your body best. You are the expert on your personal experience. If you feel that it is time to go to the birthing center or hospital or have your midwives come to you, then it is time. Trust yourself. Also, note that it is okay for everyone to get to you or for you to get to your birthing place and for things to peter out. Not only is it alright, but it is normal and something your care team plans for. Whether it is a false call or the real deal, we are here for you and want you to get the support you need when you feel you need it most.

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