Contractions

Contractions are a tightening feeling across your stomach and sometimes into your back and thighs.

Each contraction's opening (dilating) your cervix and moving your baby down the birth canal so they can be born.

How long contractions last

Each contraction usually begins gently, builds up to a peak and then tails off.

At the start of the first stage:

  • they may last about 40 to 50 seconds
  • you may get one every 10 minutes

By the end:

  • they're likely to last over a minute
  • there'll probably be less than a minute between them

Are contractions painful?

Although they’re usually painful, between each contraction you may not feel much pain at all.

They may remind you of period pains or feel much more painful. Every woman’s experience of contractions is different, as the intensity can vary a lot.

Coping with contractions

You should get some tips to help you to manage your contractions at your antenatal classes. You can ask your midwife for advice too.

When you feel a contraction coming:

  • try to stay calm – relax your shoulders, your face, your hands
  • concentrate on your breathing, keeping it slow and relaxed, and focus on breathing out
  • sway and rock your pelvis and make any noises you find helpful
  • don’t resist the contraction – it will get stronger, reach its peak and then start to fade

How your partner or birthing partner can help

Your partner or birthing partner should be there to support you too by:

  • gently rubbing your back
  • holding your hand to keep your rhythm

Breathing exercises can help, and your partner can breathe with you if you find that helpful.

Braxton Hicks contractions

From week 28 onwards you may feel your abdomen:

  • tighten for about 30 seconds several times a day
  • harden and see it remain tense for several seconds

These are Braxton Hicks contractions. This can be easy to mistake for labour but they're different from labour contractions as they:

  • don't get longer or stronger
  • don’t start to come more often - they tend to be short and come and go
  • aren't painful

You can find out if it’s the real thing or not by timing them.

More signs that labour's starting


Translations and alternative formats of this information are available from Public Health Scotland.