Probably the most common question pregnant women ask is how long do contractions last and what do they feel like?
Contractions have gained a reputation to be feared, yet they are essential to a natural and normal birth. They also result in the release of natural pain killers.
The pain of contractions and how long they will last leads many women to feel tense and scared before going into labour.
Yet contractions are a healthy and sure sign your body is working well. Your body is creating these sensations and working with it can give you the confidence and trust you need to have a positive labour experience.
How Long Do Contractions Last?
If you're wondering “how long do contractions last?”, here's a break down of what you can expect from contractions at various stages of labour.
This is the early stage of labour, also called latent or prodromal labour.
This is important work, as the uterus is bringing the baby down into the pelvis. These early contractions thin (efface) the cervix so it can then open (dilate), allowing the baby to be born.
Traditionally, active labour is not thought to begin until four centimetres dilation. This is based a study by Doctor Friedman in 1954. The study of 500 women showed cervical dilation accelerated from four centimetres. However a recent large study of over 62,000 women found cervical dilation accelerates after six centimetres, and progress from four to six centimetres was far slower than previously described in Friedman’s study.
How Long Do Contractions Last?
Contractions usually last around 30 to 90 seconds and can be irregular to begin with, settling into a more regular pattern as time passes. Usually contractions are spaced around 30 minutes apart to begin with, and eventually become closer together at five minutes apart. This stage of labour varies, but most for first time mothers, the average length of early labour is 6 to 12 hours.
Contractions during early labour are usually mild, feeling similar to period cramps or even a tingling sensation as the uterus begins to tighten and contract. Most women are aware of these contractions, but don’t find them painful, only uncomfortable.
Tips For Early Labour
- Most women in early labour can continue on with daily activities with no problems. It is a good idea to try and find a balance between normal activity and rest.
- Avoid trying to ‘kick start’ labour by excessive walking, stair climbing etc. This level of activity can lead to exhaustion later in labour, when you really need the energy.
- Drink plenty of fluids and eat light, nutritious meals if you feel hungry. If you aren’t hungry, try snacking on high energy foods that will keep your blood sugar stable.
- If contractions wake you at night, try to go back to sleep. A warm bath or shower, or heat pack may help.
- While it’s easy to get excited, try to distract yourself with a movie, a book, relaxing music or a massage. Keeping adrenaline levels to a minimum is important in this early stage.
- Avoid calling everyone you know to share the news, as you could end up feeling under pressure and stressed as everyone asks for updates. Let your birth support person know and possibly touch base with your birth team.
See our article, 8 Tips For A Low Stress Early Labour At Home.
6 – 10 Centimetres
This is the stage of active labour, when contractions begin to come closer together and occur more frequently. Dilation is beginning to accelerate and the uterus is contracting more intensely.
How Long Do Contractions Last?
Contractions will occur between five and three minutes apart and will last longer than 60 seconds. As the cervix gets closer to full dilation, the contractions will be around two minutes apart and last around 90 seconds.
Active labour is usually shorted than the earlier stage, lasting around five to six hours. Women who have had a previous vaginal birth may find active labour is much shorter.
During this stage of labour, contractions may become very intense. You may feel them in your lower abdomen, in the area of your cervix, in your back and even down your thighs. You might begin to feel increasing pressure in your back and pelvis.
Tips For Active Labour
- Ensure your environment and birth team supports undisturbed labour to minimise adrenaline and promote effective contractions.
- Choose open and upright positions that allow you to move freely to work with your body and minimise pain, as well as allowing baby room to descend.
- Between contractions, release a cleansing breath and relax your muscles, rest.
- During contractions, breathe deeply and slowly, which helps keep your body relaxed and oxygenated.
- Keep drinking fluids to stay hydrated.
Towards the end of the first stage of labour there is a period known as transition. This stage occurs when the cervix has completed dilatation.
Contractions may feel as though they are ocurring back to back. Often there is only one minute between them, and they can be around 90 to 120 seconds long. Transition usually only lasts minutes, often less than an hour, and is described as the most challenging part of labour. Thankfully, it's also the shortest, which is important to bear in mind (or have your support team remind you) when you hit this stage.
During transition, you may feel a pushing sensation happening with each contraction. This is your uterus beginning to push the baby down and through the dilated cervix. It may feel as though you are going to pass a bowel movement, but it is okay to go with this sensation, as it's simply the baby pressing on your rectum.
Transition is the stage of upheavals and changes happening in your body. Emotionally it can be tough and physically it can challenge you. You can read more about transition here.
Tips for Transition
- Let go. This stage of labour is usually when most women doubt their ability to go on. Trust your body and know it won’t last.
- Lean on your birth support team. Feeling grounded and reassured is important during this tumultuous stage.
- Keep up the fluids, go to the toilet if you can.
The second stage of labour is when the uterus begins a series of expulsive and involuntary contractions. These contractions occur from the top of your uterus (fundus), bearing down on the baby to push it through the cervix and birth canal.
After the intensity of transition, second stage contractions usually space out in frequency, with around three to five minutes between each one. They may last between 45 to 90 seconds, and this stage of labour tends to be between 20 to 120 minutes in length.
Contractions during second stage have a different feeling to those in the first stage.
Women often describe these contractions not painful, but ‘big’ and even exhilarating. They can find it a relief from the intense transition contractions. At some stage, your baby’s head will begin to crown, and you may feel a stinging or burning sensation for a few seconds. This is usually the most intense stage of the pushing stage. Once the head is born, the intensity decreases with the birth of the baby’s body.
Tips For Pushing
- Try to be in an upright position, which allows your pelvis to be open, such as hands and knees, leaning forward or standing.
- You can actively bear down with each contraction, or you can let your body do the work and breath with each contraction. Do what feels right for you.
- Push when you feel the urge. Coached pushing has been shown to increase the likelihood of damage to the pelvic floor.
- Be aware your baby’s head will come down and then slip up again. This is normal and helps your perineum to stretch gently.
- Try to avoid tensing your pelvic floor. Keeping your mouth and jaw relaxed can help. Avoid semi reclined positions (on your back or sitting) with your legs pulled up as well, as this stretches the already stretched perineum.
- Have a drink after each contraction and relax between contractions.
The final stage of labour is the expulsion of the membranes and placenta. As your baby is placed on your stomach or chest, you might see the umbilical cord is still filled with blood and is pulsating. Your uterus will continue to contract after the birth of the baby and each contraction will push blood through the umbilical cord to the baby.
Contractions in the third stage can vary depending on each woman. Most contractions begin very soon after the birth of the baby, contracting down the uterus and sheering the placenta away from the uterine wall. The third stage usually lasts anything from 5 to 30 minutes but can continue for up to an hour.
Third stage contractions are usually less intense than active labour contractions, although some women do experience very painful contractions. You may need to bear down once or twice to encourage the placenta to come out. Your cervix will still be dilated and the placenta passing through will not hurt.
Tips For Third Stage
- You will probably be feeling a huge sense of relief and excitement as you meet your baby for the first time. It can be daunting to think of more ‘work’ but the third stage usually passes more quickly if you continue to be undisturbed.
- Allow your baby to breastfeed if they show interest, as this can promote uterine contractions to expel the placenta and slow bleeding.
- This is a time to marvel at the results of your hard work! Get comfortable and enjoy your baby.
Contractions are an important part of the labour and birth process. Understanding the normal progression of labour and how contractions evolve can help you to know what to expect and how to prepare for each stage of labour. Choose your birth setting and careproviders carefully, to ensure they support birth as a normal process, which will limit unnecessary interventions and promote a positive birth experience.