Movies tend to depict the onset of labor as a dramatic, instantly recognizable thing. But the real thing is more subtle, and knowing at what point during labor to head to the hospital is a delicate art. You don’t want go too early only to be sent home, but you also don’t want to end up catching your baby in the back of a cab. There’s no hard-and-fast rule on how long labor can last, or how long it takes until she’s fully dilated and ready to push, but contraction timers can give you some idea of how labor is progressing. The best contraction timer apps work by keeping track of the length and frequency of contractions, and the interval between each one, so you can skip the mental math, focus on comforting your partner, and still have an accurate record of contractions. Some contraction trackers alert you when it’s time to head to the hospital. And even contraction timers that don’t spell it all out can help you gauge how quickly labor is progressing, which will help you determine on your own when to go seek expert help.
“People have always timed contractions, but [contraction timers are] a simplified way to do that,” says Dr. Sidney Wu, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York’s Weill Cornell Medicine. The apps “can be helpful as an adjunct. Are they necessary? No. But they’re not harmful. I would caution people to of course to use their own judgment and not just go according to what the app says. Use your common sense. Call your doctor. Everyone’s labor is different. The apps can be helpful and provide general guidance.”
Early labor can last a while. That’s why Wu says it’s important not to go to the hospital too soon after contractions begin. You’ll either be sent home or Mom will be stuck in a hospital bed for way too long. “Stay at home until you’re really uncomfortable,” Wu says. A good rule of thumb is to call the doctor when contractions follow what Wu calls “The 5-1-1 Rule”: they’re every five minutes, lasting one minute, and have been going on for one hour.
If this isn’t your first baby, be prepared to head to the hospital earlier after the onset of contractions. “After you’ve had your first baby, the body is much more efficient,” says Wu, “so call earlier because the baby can come much faster.”
Available for both Apple and Android devices (including the Apple Watch), Full Term is one of the most popular and highly rated contraction timer apps out there. The super-simple interface has a giant bright green start button for timing a contraction, so even the least tech-savvy out there can figure out how to use it in the heat of the moment. You time each contraction, and the app keeps track of the duration and frequency over the previous one hour up to the last six hours. The app also offers kick counter and weight tracking tools for moms who are earlier on in their pregnancy.
Another all-in-one pregnancy app, Sprout Pregnancy has a super-easy-to-use contraction timer. Head to the tools section of the free app (which also includes a kick counter and weight tracker) and begin timing. One perk is that you can email yourself the contraction history to have on hand when you call the doctor. One drawback to this contraction timer is that there’s no feature for rating the intensity of contractions, so you’ll just have to keep mental note of whether they’re growing stronger. Available for Apple and Android devices.
With Storky, you tap a button to start measuring contractions and once the contraction is over, tap the button again. You get an overview of the contractions and interval lengths in one place, so you can share the information with your doctor via email. When contractions are close enough together, the app lets you know it might be time to go to the hospital. It's available only for Apple devices.
With this app, you can keep track of contractions by tapping a button at the start and end of each contraction. The app analyzes the duration and frequency of contractions and will predict when it's time to go to the hospital. Additional features on the full version include the ability to edit contractions, tell what phase of labor you're in, and email the contraction history in Excel format.
Yes, this app has a contraction timer. But there's so much more. It's a pregnancy guide that takes you through every week of gestation. You can count your baby's kicks. Plus there's a daily pregnancy news feed, food and nutrition tips, health and pregnancy exercise tips, weekly checklists and reminders, and tips for dealing with morning sickness. And when the time comes, you launch the contraction timer, and birth plan checklist.