Uterine wall tension is thought to be an important determinant of the onset of labor in pregnant women. We characterize human uterine wall tension using ultrasound from the second trimester of pregnancy until parturition and compare preterm, term and twin pregnancies. A total of 320 pregnant women were followed from first antenatal visit to delivery during the period 2000-2004 at the John Hunter Hospital, NSW, Australia. The uterine wall thickness, length, anterior-posterior diameter and transverse diameter were determined by serial ultrasounds. Subjects were divided into three groups: women with singleton pregnancies and spontaneous labor onset, either preterm or term and women with twin pregnancies. Intrauterine pressure results from the literature were combined with our data to form trajectories for uterine wall thickness, volume and tension for each woman using the prolate ellipsoid method and the groups were compared at 20, 25 and 30 weeks gestation. Uterine wall tension followed an exponential curve, with results increasing throughout pregnancy with the site of maximum tension on the anterior wall. For those delivering preterm, uterine wall thickness was increased P < 0.05 compared with term. For twin pregnancies intrauterine volume was increased compared to singletons (P < 0.001), but wall thickness was not. There was no evidence for increased tension in those delivering preterm or those with twin gestations. These data are not consistent with a role for high uterine wall tension as a causal factor in preterm spontaneous labor in singleton or twin gestations. It seems likely that hormonal differences in multiple gestations are responsible for increased rates of preterm birth in this group rather than increased tension.