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Here's How Far Apart Contractions Start, Because It's Not Always Like The Movies

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When it comes to labor pains, it's hard to know what to expect. Not only is every woman different, but every baby is different as well. Whether you're getting ready to give birth for the first time or the fifth time, your labor may begin less dramatic than the movies. So how do you know if you're in labor, and how far apart do contractions first start? There are so many questions, especially if you're a first-time mom, but don't worry. I've got the answers especially for you from an expert doula.

Before I had my son, I thought labor happened like it does on TV. Chaos, your water breaks, and you scream and curse at everyone as you sweat out your body weight. No. For me, it didn't happen like that. In fact, I didn't know I was even in labor. It began as a vague cramping which I didn't think anything of because I had cramping throughout my pregnancy. It wasn't until the sensation became too painful to ignore that I began timing them. I timed how long they lasted and how far apart they were. By the time I decided to go to the hospital, I was already 4 centimeters dilated and it didn't stop there. It all happened so fast, there was hardly any time for me to even process what was happening. So I can see how any pregnant woman can truly not know she's in labor. I checked in with Ashlyn Biedebach of By the Brook Birth Doula to answer all of those common "am I in labor" questions and more.

When asked how far apart labor contractions typically start, Biedebach tells Romper in an email, "Early labor is usually characterized by contractions coming every 10 minutes apart or more. Oftentimes, moms sleep through this phase and wake up when contractions are closer together and more intense." She points out that every baby is different, so your contractions may not be at exactly every 10 minutes, which is normal. But it's best to keep track of them and notice if they get closer together or increase in intensity.

But how can you tell the difference between actual active labor contractions and Braxton Hicks? "Labor contractions are more intense and require more focus. If you think you are going into labor, walk around, take a shower, and drink some water. If they continue, it's likely early labor contractions," Biedebach says. I remember these last points all too well. The day I went into labor, I woke up very early in the morning and felt cramping and discomfort. It wasn't painful enough for me to take too seriously, but I couldn't get back to sleep, so I hopped in the shower hoping this would help ease up the discomfort. It did for a little while, but I noticed the pain gradually getting worse, which is when I realized I should probably be timing these things.


UT Southwestern University agrees that the real difference between Braxton Hicks and active labor is the intensity. "The key difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and the real thing is that Braxton Hicks contractions aren’t coordinated. Real contractions start at the top of the uterus and, in a coordinated fashion, move through the middle of the uterus to the lower segment. Braxton Hicks contractions feel like a tightening of the abdomen and tend to be focused in one area. They don’t always travel through the whole uterus," the website noted.

It's still hard to figure out when you should start timing them though, especially if they've just started. According to Biedebach, "if you are having contractions consistently for more than one to two hours," you should begin to reach out to your birthing team. Record your contractions so you have more information to give to your delivering doctor, midwife, or doula. The more information they have, the better they can coach you. Biedebach says for first-time moms, contractions are "usually every two to four minutes, lasting for a minute, for an hour. Second-time mamas and more, every four to five minutes, lasting a minute, for an hour." But remember, everyone is different. The important part is the intensity of the pain. Which leads me to my last question. What does an actual labor contraction feel like anyway?

If you've ever gone into labor, then you'll know that contractions are a very specific and distinct pain. For me and other moms I know, it feels like very intense menstrual cramps. Biedebach furthers this point when she says, "a true, strong contraction wraps all the way around the front of your uterus as it brings baby down deeper into your pelvis and opens your cervix. It can feel differently during each stage of labor." Different and more intense, I might add, but somehow you get through it.

And it's important to remember that every mom can experience different labor sensations. Cleveland Clinic noted that even from one pregnancy to the next, your labor pains may feel different. "Labor contractions cause discomfort or a dull ache in your back and lower abdomen, along with pressure in the pelvis. Some women might also feel pain in their sides and thighs. Some women describe contractions as strong menstrual cramps, while others describe them as strong waves that feel like diarrhea cramps," according to the website.

Going into labor can be scary but remember, women through thousands of years have been doing it through all of the generations before you. If the mothers before you can do it, you can, too. Take note of your discomfort levels and begin timing your contractions if you notice you're having them. Don't be afraid to reach out to your support system and get checked out at your birth place as soon as you can. Remember, you got this.


Ashlyn Biedebach, registered nurse

This post was originally published on Sept. 27, 2018. It was updated on Aug. 26, 2019. Additional reporting by Samantha Darby.

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