Making Sense of Contractions

For some women and some births, contractions occur just like clockwork. They follow the expected protocol so well you’d think they read the book. 🙂 But sometimes, contractions seem to have a mind of their own. You finally think you’ve figured out that you’re actually having contractions and then the whole pattern may change and you find yourself wondering what in the world is going on. That’s why I wrote this article. Hope it helps you make sense of the different ways contractions can occur and what it means.

Book Labor – Contractions start off several minutes apart, lasting about 30-40 seconds long. They gradually get closer together, last longer and feel more intense over a period of hours, just like the books say will happen. Contractions will steadily increase until they are 2-3 minutes apart, lasting over 70-90 seconds. You might expect 15 or so hours of labor.

Fast Labor – Contractions start off about 5 minutes apart, lasting 60 seconds long. The mother has to concentrate on the contractions and breathe through them. Within an hour or two, the contractions may speed up to every 2 or 3 minutes, lasting 70-90 seconds long, and the mother may begin to feel overwhelmed. She is just having a very fast 1st stage labor. The pushing stage may or may not be fast. A fast labor often occurs if the cervix is dilated to 4-5 cm prior to labor.

Slow Labor – Contractions may start off several minutes apart, lasting about 30-40 seconds, and they may stay that way for several hours. The contractions will eventually get closer together, last longer and feel stronger, but it may take several more hours to progress. Slow labors may gradually progress over a period of 20-30 hours. Try comfort measures at home until the contractions are just a few minutes apart, lasting over 60 seconds and very intense (unless there is a medical reason to get help sooner).

Confusing Labor – Contractions may start off very close together, 3 minutes apart or so, but they only last 20-30 seconds. The contractions may be uncomfortable, but they aren’t really strong. The mother can usually talk through them (at least at the beginning) or soon after the contraction is over. Because they are so close together, the mother may think she is going to have a fast labor. But fast labors are very intense from the beginning or quickly become intense.

If the contractions are very uncomfortable or painful, and they just seem to “grind away,” never progressing, like they are stuck in one gear…ask your health care provider for a urinalysis.  A bladder infection or UTI can irritate the uterus and cause contractions like that. The baby’s position can also need correction so the baby can fit into the pelvis more easily. Try the movements such as rocking, bouncing, swaying, lunging (with help), hands and knees, knee-chest, side-lying and whatever position seems to make the mother more comfortable.

Another confusing labor pattern is when the contractions initially seem to be getting closer together, lasting longer and becoming stronger, but then the contractions seem to stall at that level of intensity. The contractions may stop altogether and then recur several hours later or the next day. The contractions may be very uncomfortable and the mother can become very tired and discouraged when there is no progress.

The cause for this can be the baby’s position, a bladder infection or UTI in the mom or weakness from lack of food or dehydration. If the mother is anxious about conditions surrounding her labor and birth, the increased cortisol can stall her labor as well.

Make sure the mother is hydrated and has something to eat, encourage her to rest as much as possible during the break times, talk to her about any issue that may be concerning her and reassure her that she will be supported. Try the movements mentioned above that can help rotate the baby and rule out a bladder infection or UTI by having a urinalysis if the above measures don’t help.

Just a Backache – The mother notices that she is getting a low backache that comes and goes at regular intervals. The backache may increase in intensity, then ease off and feel better. She may notice a “wavelike” pattern to the backache sensation, or it may feel like a pressing feeling or even a muscle spasm in the back. But the backache will go away and then mysteriously return.

If the backache is uncomfortable enough that the mom needs to stop talking and think about the sensation, that is a pretty good indicator that she is in labor. Time the backaches and see if there is a regular pattern. Do relaxation/breathing exercises while on hands and knees or knee/chest position, try pelvic rocks and the exaggerated side-lying position. Also try taking a shower and slowly exhale and release the jaw, shoulders, abdominal muscles and back. Those things can help rotate a baby whose position may be putting extra stress on the mother’s back.


Keep in mind that there are many different variations of contraction patterns in a normal labor. Just because contractions progress slowly, proceed quickly, and stop and start occasionally does not mean that something is wrong. Your body is not a machine and the dynamic of your baby and your body can create a variety of normal variations in contraction patterns.

Learn how to relax your body and release your muscles, especially in your jaw, shoulders and torso, while you slowly exhale. Practice exhaling slowly and deeply while you let your body melt into relaxation. That will help relieve tension, reduce your anxiety level and relieve discomfort while you are having contractions.

When you begin to notice contractions, immediately use those contractions to practice relaxing and think about how your body is working. Allow the contraction to work and try to rest as much as possible during them, until you become uncomfortable in that position. Move to different positions and use all of your information to help yourself be more comfortable.

Don’t worry if the contractions take some breaks early on. When your contractions are coming every few minutes and are lasting a full minute or longer, that is usually a good indicator that your labor is going to keep progressing until your baby is born.

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