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Timing Contractions - What You Need to Know.

Accurately timing contractions can be the key to understanding your pregnant body. To time contractions, there are a few basics: note the start of one contraction, note the end of that contraction, and then note the start of the next contraction. This will help you compute the duration (how long each contraction lasts) and frequency (how far apart are they).

Simple enough, right?

If you answered “No”, don’t worry! We’re going to walk you through it a bit more to help you accurately time your contractions: 

How to time contractions:

Back to those three important time points: the start of a contraction, the end of a contraction, and the start of the next contraction. Noting these three time points for at least an hour will help you answer the key questions you’ll need to know about changes in your contraction pattern that might indicate changes: “How long is each contraction?”, “How far apart are they?”, and “How long have you been feeling them?”


Contractions - the basics for timing contractions and how to time contractions for duration and frequency and 5-1-1 rule for labor

Terms for timing contractions:

Duration of a contraction – “How long is each contraction?”

Duration is measured from the beginning of one contraction to the end of that contraction.

Time the duration of a contraction by starting your timer when a contraction starts and stopping the timer when the contraction ends. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll feel a peak in intensity but wait until all sensation has stopped before you stop the timer.


timing contractions - how to time contractions for duration - timing contraction duration


Frequency of contractions – “How far apart are they?”

Frequency is based on the time between the start of one contraction and the start of the next contraction.

Time the frequency of contractions by noting the time when one contraction starts and the time when the next contraction starts. Some apps will do this math for you when you are working to time the duration.


timing contractions - how to time contractions for frequency - timing contraction frequency


The 5-1-1 Rule – all three questions

The 5-1-1 rule also takes into account the “How long have you been feeling them?” since contraction patterns should be recorded for at least one hour. This rule of thumb often comes from your care team and/or birth educator as a way to know when early labor becomes active labor. It may take many forms, you may hear 4-1-1 or 3-1-1, so talk with your care team about their specific recommendations.

Timing for 5-1-1 stats is based on frequency of contractions (specifically the actual interval between) becoming 5 minutes apart, on average, duration of your contractions becoming 1 minute long, on average, and timing continuing over one hour.

Chances are if you are looking for an answer to your how to time contractions question, it’s because you heard about the 5-1-1/4-1-1/3-1-1 rule.


5-1-1 rule for timing contractions 3-1-1 rule or 4-1-1 rule for labor


Other signs of labor

In addition to contractions, there are other signs of labor to keep an eye out for. Learn about those signs with this Lamaze Tip Sheet – Recognizing the Signs of Labor.


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Molly Dickens, PhD

About Molly

Molly has her PhD in Physiology and spent over a decade as an academic research scientist slightly obsessed with the colliding worlds of brain science, hormones, stress and the reproductive system. Nowadays she heads up Content and Community at Bloomlife and edits Preg U. Science is still her jam and she can't help but continue to dive into the research world to find interesting bits about pregnancy and parenting.


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