You’re in your last trimester—yay! Now is the time to start thinking about labor—reviewing a Labor Playbook, arming yourself with natural pain relief remedies, and downloading a contraction timer app on your phone. Say what? Yes, this will help you on the big day!

Read on to find out:

  • What a contraction timer is
  • What a contraction timer measures
  • How to time contractions
  • What the best contraction timer apps are
  • Plus, how to know if you’re having contractions

What Is a Contraction Timer?

A contraction timer is an app that automatically tracks, times, and counts contractions.

A contraction timer measures the duration and frequency of contractions to indicate which stage of labor you’re in and if it’s time to call your provider and/or go to the birthing center or hospital. You can also use it to log the intensity of your contractions.

Duration

A contractions’ duration is calculated by subtracting the time a contraction starts from the time it ends. Contractions function to dilate the cervix, and as your labor progresses they get longer.

Frequency

Frequency is how often contractions are occurring, and is calculated by noting how much time has passed from the end of the first contraction to the beginning of the second. They come more frequently the closer you are to giving birth.

Intensity

The intensity, or strength, of each contraction, tells you how hard your body is working to dilate that cervix and push your baby out into the world. Some contraction timers allow you to record your contractions’ intensity.

How to Time Contractions

  1. Open the app and hit start when a contraction begins. The stopwatch will start.
  2. Hit stop when the contraction subsides. The stopwatch will stop.
  3. The app will automatically calculate the duration of your first contraction.
  4. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
  5. Once you’ve logged more than one contraction, the contraction timer app will tell you the frequency of your contractions as well.
  6. Monitor your contractions to see if a pattern emerges.
  7. When your contractions are 4 minutes apart, are at least 1 minute long, and last for 1 hour, it’s time to get ready to meet baby. (This is called the 4-1-1 Rule, and is considered a general guideline to help women understand when it’s time to head to the birthing center.)

The Best Contraction Timers

There are lots of free or low-cost apps to choose from—so many that it’s hard to know which one to download! I like Contraction Timer and Full term for the iPhone and Easy Contraction Timer for Android phones.

Contraction Timer (get it here) knows that you don’t want to be fumbling for buttons when a contraction hits. After pulling up the app, all you have to do is tap anywhere on the screen to start and stop the timer. Another screen lists your contractions in order, with the most recent one on top. But if that display doesn’t work for you, you can pull up a graph of their durations. Once a contraction subsides, you can edit it or leave notes. You can also rate the contractions’ intensity by moving a dot on a slider from low to high.

While you can’t tap the full screen to start the Full Term Contraction Timer (get it here), the large, green button at the screen’s bottom is easy to find. The summary at the screen’s top displays the duration and frequency of your last contraction, the average duration and average frequencies of all your contractions in the last hour, and the averages for the past six hours. You can toggle between settings to see your information as detailed lists or graphs, as well.

This app also includes a kick counter and weight tracker and has a reference section containing general pregnancy information.

Easy Contraction Timer (get it here) does let you add a contraction’s intensity to its duration and frequency, in fact, it has a nice pie chart of all your contraction’s intensity levels. You can edit or delete contractions if you pressed the button accidentally (oops!). It also gives you a summary of recent contractions on the main screen.

So How Do I Know If I’m Having Contractions?

If you’re a first-time mom, you’re probably wondering how you’ll know if you’re having contractions in the first place (what they say is true: after you’ve done it once, you’ll know!). Contractions can feel like a very strong menstrual cramp or tightening in your lower abdomen. No matter how they begin, contractions get stronger and more intense as labor progresses. (If you want to read more about what contractions feel like, head over to this article.)

Some mamas may mistake Braxton hicks, or mild practice contractions, for early labor. You can read more about Braxton hicks—and how to differentiate them from real contractions—in this post.

Prodromal labor may also be at play. Though prodromal labor is real labor, contractions can be sporadic and only increase in frequency up to a point. Sometimes prodromal labor can last for weeks! You can read more about prodromal labor in this post.

How About You?

If you’ve given birth before, did you use a contraction timer? Was it helpful, or annoying? Share you experience below.