How Long Do Contractions Last During Labor?

Gabrielle Applebury
Contributor: Donna Theobald
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Woman having back pain during a contraction

How long do contractions last is an important question for any woman about to go into labor. Understanding the normal progression of labor and contractions will help you to know what to expect during this exciting time.

Length of Contractions and Labor

Labor is the process a woman's body goes through to deliver a baby. Everyone's labor is different -- some experience a short labor and some women experience a long labor. Contractions are the involuntary rhythmical tightening of the uterine muscle that pushes the baby down and out of the birth canal during labor. Women wondering how long can a contraction last or how long should a contraction last should know that the length of contractions is different for every pregnancy. However, there are a few norms that woman experience that might help you when you go through labor.

Timing Contractions

Knowing how long contractions last can be better understood by timing your contractions to determine which stage of labor you are in. Time your contractions by counting from the beginning of one contraction when the pain begins until it ends. Then, continue counting even when the pain subsides until the start of a new contraction. This way you'll know how long your contractions last, as well as how far apart they are. Keep in mind:

  • The amount of time from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next is how far apart the contractions are.
  • When your contractions get closer together, you are farther along in the delivery phase of labor.
  • At the beginning, the tightening or painful part of the contraction will last approximately 30 to 45 seconds, with the pain building up, peaking, and then subsiding like a bell curve.
  • A contraction is usually at least 30 seconds long. Some women experience false labor or Braxton Hicks contractions, which is not true labor so you may be sent home from the hospital if this is the case until you begin labor. Think of Braxton Hicks contractions as a warm up or practice for the real deal.

Beginning of Labor

At the beginning of your labor you may see a small amount of bloody discharge. This can happen before you feel a contraction or afterwards. Some women do not even notice this bloody show and that is normal as well. This can even occur a few days prior to delivery. Be sure to inform your doctor if you notice your bloody show.

As the first stage progresses, your contractions may feel like a rubber band is tightening around your lower abdomen and lower back and being released every five minutes. It may also feel similar to very painful menstrual cramps. During the tightening phase of the contraction, your abdomen will get hard to the touch.

Keep Track of Your Contractions

Begin timing your contractions as soon as you realize that you are having them 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. The length of the contraction is probably 30 seconds to one minute. 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.

How Long Do Contractions Last?

You will experience contractions from the start of labor until the baby is born. The average length of labor and contractions is approximately eight to 18 hours. Each pregnancy will be different and your labor and contractions will vary. If you choose to have subsequent pregnancies, labor and contractions may differ as well.

Preparing For Delivery

Call your doctor when you first start experiencing labor contractions. It is helpful to have the length of time of each contraction written down and how far apart they are- so keep a notepad or your phone handy so you can let you doctor know. Be sure to note how painful the contractions are on a scale of one to 10 and be honest about it. Try as best as you can to relax and preserve your energy for the exciting moment ahead.

How Long Do Contractions Last During Labor?