When your baby is ready to be born you will experience labor contractions. Contractions are the tightening of the uterine muscle that delivers the baby out of your body. Labor is divided into three stages, at each stage your contractions will change in length and how they feel.
The Start of Labor
Oxytocin, a hormone in the pregnant mother's pituitary gland, is released at approximately 40 weeks gestation to start labor. This hormone causes contractions that tighten and relax the uterus muscle.
Contractions are timed to determine which stage of labor you are in. When you time your contractions, start counting at the beginning of one contraction when the pain begins and continue counting even when the pain subsides until the start of a new contraction. The amount of time from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next is how far the contractions are apart. When your contractions get closer together, you are farther along in the delivery phase. At the beginning, the tightening or painful part of the contraction will last approximately 30 to 45 seconds, near the end the pain will be longer.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor when you first start recognizing you are having labor contractions. Keep a note pad at home and write down your contraction timing information to tell your doctor. He will tell you when to go to the hospital based on this information.
Labor Contractions During Each Stage
Labor contractions change during each stage of labor.
Labor begins with mild contractions during the first stage. These beginning contractions may feel like low back pain or mild menstrual pain. Some women describe the contractions in the first phase as gas pains or abdominal flu. As the first stage progresses, you may feel like a rubber band is tightening around your lower abdomen and lower back that is released at intervals. During the tightening phase of the contraction, your abdomen will get hard to the touch. Begin timing your contractions to see how far apart they are. At the beginning, your contractions may be very irregular. One contraction may be 15 minutes apart from the next, or as close as 5 minutes. As the first stage of labor progresses your contractions get closer and more regular. Most women are able to be at home during the first stage of labor.
When your contractions become more regular, you are in the second stage of labor and should be either at the hospital or on your way. In the hospital, you may be hooked up to a contraction monitor. This device times your contractions and shows a bar graph of the intensity of the contraction. You will see the bar graph peak during the most intense portion of each contraction. Your contractions are getting longer and closer together. The baby's head is moving down the birth canal as your cervix becomes more dilated. For the duration of the second stage, your contractions may stay pretty much the same intensity and length.
Stage three of labor is the beginning of the pushing phase. Your contractions are more predictable, but very intense. At the peak of each contraction you will feel an urge to push or bear down so the baby will continue down and out through the birth canal. Relax in between contractions and have someone help you get into position for the next push. A nurse or your partner may look at the contraction monitor and be able to tell you when to get ready to push when the peak of the contraction is near.
Braxton Hicks Contractions
Braxton Hicks contractions are often felt during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. It is most common in women who have already given birth at least once before. Braxton Hicks are small contractions that are completely normal, but they may feel like a small labor contraction that is infrequent and not regular.