The lowdown on different types and what they mean.
Labor & Delivery: Contractions
Because contractions generally signal that labor is starting, they can be viewed as a warning sign, a green light or a cue to ask, "Honey, the crib is set up, right?" But having contractions before you're due doesn't necessarily mean that Baby has requested an early checkout from Hotel Utero. Here's what you need to know about uterine contractions—whenever they occur:
You can experience contractions even in the first trimester as your body adjusts to the pregnancy. The stretching of the ligaments around the uterus can cause contractions, as can dehydration, constipation and gas pains. If they're accompanied by spotting, bleeding and/or abdominal pain, you need to see a doc to rule out an ectopic pregnancy or a potential miscarriage.
While there are many things you need medical professionals for (we don't advocate DIY ultrasounds, for example), you can perform a self-test to see if you're feeling true contractions: Lie down and place a hand on your uterus. If your entire uterus is hard during the cramping, it's probably a contraction. If it's hard in one place and soft in others, it may just be the baby moving around.
Many contractions that occur after week 34 are random and irregular; these are known as Braxton-Hicks contractions. If contractions come regularly every 10 minutes or less rather than intermittently, you may be in preterm labor. Report any contractions to your doctor or midwife so she can determine what's happening.
If you're not having regular contractions signaling preterm labor, try calming the cramps by drinking plenty of water, taking a warm bath, emptying your bladder and breathing rhythmically.
If you have a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy, orgasms—with or without intercourse—don't increase the risk of premature labor. Likewise, sex isn't likely to trigger labor even as your due date approaches.
If you're close to your due date
While there's no need to time yourself like Olympian Usain Bolt in a 100-meter dash, you or your partner do want to start noting how long the contractions last and the length of the time between them (measured from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next). Are these contractions coming in regular intervals, spaced closely and so painful that it's hard to talk during them (as opposed to little twinges)? You're considered to be in active labor if you have contractions that last for about a minute and come regularly more often than every five minutes.
If you're very uncomfortable during the contractions or if you live far from the hospital or birthing center, your doctor or midwife may recommend that you come in. You'll be assessed every two hours to determine whether or not you're in active labor.
A note about bleeding
Bleeding, whether or not it's accompanied by contractions, is always worth discussing with your doctor or midwife. But not all causes are serious: For example, it's common to experience a small amount of bright red bleeding during intercourse, especially during the first trimester. This bleeding is caused when capillaries in the cervix, which are swollen during pregnancy, become irritated and burst.
Common pregnancy symptoms like spotting and contractions can be harmless or signs of trouble. Here's how to tell the difference.