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Timing your contractions - when to go to the hospital

Timing your contractions can help you decide if you are in true labour or not.

Start timing your contractions when they get stronger or closer together. It is helpful to time 3 contractions in a row. Use a watch with a second hand or a mobile phone app.

Your midwife will probably tell you to stay at home until your contractions are frequent. If you live a long distance from the hospital you may be asked to come in earlier.

Urgent advice: Call your midwife when your contractions are regular and:

  • last at least 60 seconds
  • come every 5 minutes

If you're planning to have your baby in a maternity ward, phone the hospital or go straight to the hospital.

What contractions feel like

When you have a contraction, your womb tightens and then relaxes. For some people, contractions may feel like extreme period pains.

As labour gets going, your contractions usually become longer, stronger and more frequent. During a contraction, the muscles tighten and the pain increases. If you put your hand on your stomach, you'll feel it getting harder. When the muscles relax, the pain fades and you will feel the hardness ease.

The contractions are moving your baby down and opening the entrance to your womb (the cervix). This will make it possible for your baby to go through.

Braxton Hicks contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions are contractions that occur before true or real labour. They are also known as 'practice contractions'. These sensations are usually painless. It's only when they become painful or frequent that you need to contact your midwife or hospital.

When to go to hospital

Non-urgent advice: Go to hospital when:

  • your contractions are 5 minutes apart and are getting stronger (you may need to go to hospital sooner if you live a long distance away)
  • your baby's pattern of movements has changed
  • your waters break or release
  • you are bleeding from your vagina

Phone your midwife or maternity unit before going to the hospital. Bring your antenatal card or your pregnancy notes and your bag. Some maternity hospitals now have electronic records.

Page last reviewed: 4 January 2023
Next review due: 4 January 2026

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 8.