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When Do Contractions Mean Labor?

The movies have taught us that going into labor mean a gush of water from your nether regions and immediate labor pains. But the reality of going into labor can be quite different. Often, moms-to-be start to feeling practice contractions, known as Braxton Hicks contractions, as early as the second trimester, but when do contractions mean labor?

The American Pregnancy Association (APA) noted that if your contractions are more uncomfortable than painful, irregular in intensity, infrequent, unpredictable, non-rhythmic, do not increase in intensity or frequency, and then taper off and disappear, you are most likely experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions. These kind of contractions help to get the cervix ready, but  Braxton Hicks don't actually cause the cervical dilation or effacement that occurs during labor contractions, according to WhatToExpect.com.

The real-deal contractions are strong, repetitive, and persistent according to Parents. Susan Warhus, MD, an OB-GYN and author of Countdown to Baby noted that the intensity is so strong that you can't walk or talk through labor contractions. If your contractions are five-to-seven minutes apart for at least one hour, with with consistent or increased intensity, you're in labor, according to Myron Bethel, MD, chief of staff at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

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According to WhatToExpect.com, in early labor, each contraction usually lasts about 30 to 45 seconds. In active labor, contractions become more intense, frequent, and longer, lasting 40-to-60 seconds each. In transitional labor, contractions have a sudden increase intensity and frequency, and each lasts 60-to-90 seconds. Finally, during pushing and delivery, contractions last 60-to-90 seconds, but can be further apart and possibly less painful.

On some occasions it can be difficult to tell false labor from true labor. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) noted that there are times when the only way to tell the difference is by having a vaginal exam to look for changes in your cervix that signal the onset of labor.

So, should you call the doctor?

The March of Dimes recommended calling your doctor, midwife, or coming into the hospital if your contractions are between 5 and 10 minutes apart they are very painful, or if you think you are going into labor and you are under 37 weeks of pregnancy. This is known as preterm labor. Even if you don't have contractions, you should always seek medication attention if your water breaks – especially if the fluid is stained dark, greenish brown – or you experience vaginal bleeding.