Pregnancy should last about 40 weeks, and you might think contractions happen only when you finally go into labor. But what if you feel them earlier? To find out the answer to this and to learn all about contractions, we turned to our own certified nurse-midwife, Deborah Brown, ARNP for answers.
When to Expect Contractions and How Long Should They Last
“You should start having contractions after the 37th week of pregnancy,” explains Brown. “Although, you may experience a few pre-term contractions before then. Your first contractions will start randomly, and you’ll likely have three to four a day. Once a rhythm starts and you’re having contractions every 10 minutes they should last for about 45 seconds. Once they get up to a minute in length and are happening every 10 minutes steadily for two hours, it’s time to call your doctor and get ready to have your baby. First-time mothers should expect contractions every five minutes, lasting a minute each. When this rhythm has lasted longer than two hours it’s time to call your doctor and get ready to have your baby.”
Measuring the length of contractions is done by timing from the start of the contraction until it ends. And measuring the time between contractions is done by timing from the beginning of the contraction to the start of the next contraction.
False contractions can start any time after 24 weeks and are very common. These are called Braxton-Hicks contractions and are often caused by dehydration. “Staying well hydrated is very important for you and your baby during pregnancy,” says Brown.
“Having an infection can also cause false contractions after 24 weeks. Be sure to see your doctor to treat the infection before it gets worse.”
Stages of Contractions
Early contractions should feel like they start at the top of your stomach and radiate around to your back and down to your legs. During these early contractions your stomach should be as soft as the tip of your nose. During later contractions your stomach should feel more like your chin, and in the last stage your stomach should feel as hard as your forehead. Late stage contractions should feel like they start at the bottom of your stomach or the whole stomach and radiate the same way.
Preterm contractions are a factor to watch for and to be taken seriously as they can be a sign of complications with your pregnancy. If you’ve ruled out false contractions and you’ve started to have contractions earlier than 37 weeks, be sure to call your doctor immediately.
Brown explained that being aware of your risk factors is important in a healthy pregnancy. “African-American women are three to six times more likely to die during child birth than compared with white women in America,” explains Brown. “And they’re more than twice as likely to have their babies’ pre-term. African-American women on average will have their babies pre-term 16 percent of the time compared to white women who have pre-term births 7 percent of the time. All the other races average around 10 percent for pre-term births.”
If you’re an African-American woman or a woman of color, it’s very important that you eat a healthy, well-rounded diet, and look for any changes in your pregnancy that may lead you to believe that something is wrong. If you feel as though something is wrong, and you feel like your doctor doesn’t listen to you, be sure to seek a second opinion.
Who to Call and Where to Go
If you have bleeding or your water breaks before 37 weeks, call your doctor immediately.
If your contractions are lasting longer than a minute and your stomach is as hard as your forehead, you have bleeding and your baby doesn’t feel like they’re moving, call your doctor immediately.
Contractions lasting longer than a minute are a sign that your uterus is contracting too hard and you should contact your doctor immediately.
We believe in the whole health and well-being of you and your baby from conception to birth and beyond and are committed to providing you with the best care available. Please visit Florida Hospital for Women or call 407-303-4HER to make an appointment or to speak with one of our specialists about your next steps on the path to motherhood.