Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Giving birth - contractions

5-minute read

Contractions refer to when the muscles in your uterus (womb) tighten and then relax. Contractions can occur at any time during your pregnancy, but you are unlikely to feel them early in your pregnancy. Contractions become stronger, more regular and more painful once you are in labour. Speak to your doctor or midwife during a pre-natal visit about what you should do when you start to feel contractions.

What is a contraction? What are the signs?

During a contraction your uterus tightens in order to dilate (open) your cervix (the neck of your womb) and move your baby downwards during the first stage of labour.

Contractions can feel like a wave that starts at the top of your uterus and moves downwards. If you put your hand on your abdomen during a contraction you will feel your abdomen become hard, and then soften as the contraction ends.

Contractions become more frequent and intense as labour progresses. You will feel the pain ease between contractions. Contractions continue until your cervix dilates to be about 10cm wide, and is wide enough for your baby to be born.

What do contractions feel like?

Women can experience contractions in different ways. Your contractions may feel like cramps in your lower stomach and can start off feeling like period pain. You may have dull lower back pain or pain in your inner thigh that you feel down your legs.

At first, your contractions will be short and around 30 minutes apart. As your labour advances, your contractions will get stronger and closer together. Your contractions will eventually last for up to a minute and come every 2 to 3 minutes.

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions occur throughout your pregnancy but often you won’t feel them until your second trimester. These are contractions that tone the uterus, but don’t open the cervix. Braxton Hicks contractions are sometimes known as ‘false labour’, since they can be strong and may feel uncomfortable.

You can tell the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and ’real labour’ since Braxton Hicks contractions will stop if you change your position or have a warm shower. Labour won’t stop if you do these things.

What should I do when contractions start?

When your contractions begin, you don’t always need to go straight to the hospital. If you are comfortable and have had a normal pregnancy, you can stay at home and rest while you are in the early stages of labour.

However, you should go straight to the hospital in any of the following situations:

  • your waters break (note the time, colour and amount of fluid)
  • your contractions become painful and regular
  • labour has begun and a doctor or midwife has advised you to go to hospital early
  • you are in labour and have planned a caesarean birth
  • you have a known medical condition that means you will need close monitoring during labour
  • there has been a change in your baby’s movements

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance in any of the following situations:

  • if your labour is progressing quickly and you think you may not make it to hospital in time
  • if you have heavy bleeding from your vagina
  • if you have a severe headache or blurred vision

How are contractions timed?

Time your contractions from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next contraction. You should also measure the length of your contractions.

In true labour, your contractions will become regular over time and come closer together. In false labour, your contractions will remain irregular.

True contractions last for about 30 seconds at the beginning of labour and will eventually become longer — up to 75 seconds. False-labour contractions vary in length and strength.

How can I ease the pain from contractions?

There are a few ways to ease pain during contractions.

Non-medication-based strategies include:

  • spending time in a bath or pool
  • heat packs
  • warm showers
  • acupuncture
  • massage, hypnosis and other relaxation techniques

There are also medicines that your midwife or doctor can give you to help ease your pain during contractions. Examples include:

  • nitrous oxide gas (inhaled pain reliever)
  • morphine or pethidine (medicine injected under the skin)
  • epidural analgesia (medicine injected into the epidural space in the spine)

What happens if I start having contractions too early?

Babies who are born before week 37 of pregnancy are premature. If you are having contractions or other signs of labour earlier than week 37 of your pregnancy, go straight to the hospital.

Many women who have early contractions do not give birth prematurely. Urgent medical care will help ensure a healthy continuation of your pregnancy.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Giving birth - contractions

Contractions are when the muscles in your uterus tighten and then relax. They occur throughout the later stages of your pregnancy.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Braxton Hicks contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions are a normal part of pregnancy and not a sign that you’re ready to give birth.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Multiple birth - triplets or more

If you are pregnant with triplets or more, the birth will need careful planning. The main risk is that your babies will be born prematurely. Find out more here.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Birth and beyond - Ngala

Exciting times are ahead!Birth comes after lots of anticipation and preparation

Read more on Ngala website

Preparing for the birth

Deciding on where you want to give birth is an important decision you will need to make. Here you will find information on what options are available to you.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Developing a birth plan - Better Health Channel

A birth plan is a written summary of your preferences for when you are in labour and giving birth.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Making a birth plan

Many expectant parents develop a written plan covering what they would like to happen during labour and birth. Know what to include if you create your own plan.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Your Next Birth after Caesarean Section - Maternal, child and family health

Consumer brochure with information on birth options available to women planning their next birth after caesarean section.

Read more on NSW Health website

Vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC)

If you've delivered a baby by caesarean (C-section), you may have a choice with your next pregnancy - a vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC) or a planned (elective) caesarean.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Birth plan- getting to hospital when having a baby

Pregnant and packing for hospital? Don’t forget to make a plan for how you’ll get there in time to give birth, bearing in mind that petrol tanks run empty and some cars have a habit of breaking down at all the wrong moments.

Read more on Parenthub website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.