As you get further along in your pregnancy, one of the things you will start to think about more and more is in knowing when to go to the hospital once you start experiencing contractions. Actually, this is something you need to consider during the first trimester as well because many women begin experiencing false labor (Braxton Hicks contractions) from as early on as the second or third month! Knowing the difference between Braxton Hicks and true labor pains is vital in determining when to go to the hospital.
Many, if not most, women will at one point during their pregnancy experience Braxton Hicks contractions and suddenly become afraid that they are in labor way too early. Most often this is nothing to worry about because, for one reason or another, the uterus tightens up causing what appear to be labor contractions. Most often you can differentiate false labor and the real thing by the level of pain, the duration of the cramping and whether or not your mucus plug was excreted or your water broke. The other key indicator is whether or not your cervix dilated, but that takes a pelvic exam that is usually only conducted by a medical professional such as a doctor or a midwife. (And by that point you would be in the hospital!)
Generally, Braxton Hicks contractions only last a few seconds and are not repeated more than once or twice, unlike authentic labor contractions. Also, the pain might be a sudden tightening up of the uterus with a bit of pain or pressure, but nowhere near as excruciating as actual labor. Most often women who have had previous births know the difference so Braxton Hicks are generally more stressful to first-time mothers. However, it should be warned that just because false labor is extremely common during pregnancy, you still need to know when to go to the hospital. You can’t automatically assume that you are merely experiencing false labor because it is too early!
Monitoring Contractions and/or Symptoms
Sometimes women are in labor long before they lose their mucus plug or before their water breaks. There are times when women are actually in hard labor and continue to wait for their water to break before going to the hospital. This might not be a good idea because if you are in what is known as hard labor and your water hasn’t broken there could be other complications you are unaware of. Other times, the mucus plug is expelled and your water breaks yet labor contractions don’t begin right away. This too could be a dangerous situation if left too long without going to the hospital because a whole host of complications can develop for you as well as for your unborn child. Don’t forget, that baby is floating in amniotic fluid for a reason and will need to come out after it is gone!
Timing contractions is one of the ways in which many women monitor contractions when to go to the hospital. Typically, contractions will start as a gripping pain and last for perhaps a minute or less. At first they should occur about every ten minutes and from there they will increase both in frequency as well as severity. The steadfast rule of thumb has always been to call your doctor and head off to the hospital when your contractions are approximately five minutes apart and/or your water has broken. However, with mothers who have had previous births, they might want to consider getting there sooner as babies tend to come quicker the second, third and fourth time around. Once at the hospital the doctor or midwife will be able to monitor how far your cervix has dilated to provide further insight into how far advanced your labor is.
While there are key indicators that point to the difference between ‘real’ and ‘false’ labor, it is good to keep in mind that every woman is different. We like to think that there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ labor and that you can always determine when to go to the hospital based on timing your contractions. This doesn’t always hold true, so it is always in your best interest to read what other mothers have experienced so that you can get a better picture of what to expect if you don’t experience a ‘textbook’ labor. Yes, if all goes as planned then timing your contractions at five minute intervals is a good indicator that you are ready to deliver that baby, but this may never happen. Read about what other mothers have experienced and talk to your doctor/midwife about what they expect you to do when the time comes. Until then, relax and enjoy your pregnancy. That baby is on its way. No doubt about it!
Author’s Note: As mentioned, no two women are alike. I am a classic example of one of the exceptions to the rule. On the morning my daughter was born (first child), I had buzzing in my ears and I felt a bit off, but not in pain. Just something felt ‘odd.’ As luck would have it I had a doctor’s appointment that day and described my feelings. I was summarily told that I was not dilated, was not having contractions and the baby hadn’t dropped into the birth canal. I had another three weeks or so to wait. Upon arriving home I shouted to my family in the other room that it would be at least three more weeks. At that moment my water broke, within an hour I was in hard labor, and five hours later my daughter was born by emergency C-Section. As a pregnant mother, you know your body. Don’t panic, just learn to read the signs and if something feels ‘off,’ there is nothing wrong with calling your doctor or midwife.