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What Do Contractions Feel Like?
February 2, 2024

What Do Contractions Feel Like?

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What Do Contractions Feel Like?.
What Do Contractions Feel Like?

As you get closer and closer to your due date, you’ll probably be looking for signs that labor is near and you’re finally going to get to meet your baby. You may have started to experience a tightening sensation across your belly, called Braxton Hicks contractions, the as you get further along in your pregnancy. For some people, especially if it’s your first pregnancy, it can be hard to tell if these contractions are the real deal or not. Others may be worried they won’t know when it’s actually happening.

Among other telltale signs that labor is on the horizon (like losing your mucus plug or spotting your bloody show), the start of contractions means things are definitely progressing and your body is getting ready to birth your baby.

While you’ll most likely be able to tell it’s go-time once contractions start, you don’t necessarily want to get to the hospital or birth center or call your midwife too early in labor (since you risk the chance of being sent back home). But not to worry! From how they feel to how to time them, here’s what you need to know about contractions.

What Is a Contraction?

A contraction is the tightening of the uterine muscles. During labor, the uterus contracts in a coordinated pattern to help move your baby down, into and through the vaginal canal to be born. You’ll be able to tell you’re having a contraction (versus say, a belly ache) because your belly will get super hard and tight, and when it’s over, it will soften and relax back to normal.

Types of Contractions

There are a few different types of contractions you can experience in pregnancy.

Braxton Hicks contractions: From about mid-pregnancy up until your actual labor starts, you may experience Braxton Hicks contractions as your uterus practices and prepares for the real deal. These contractions are different than labor contractions since they don’t cause any changes to your cervix.

False labor aka Prodromal Labor contractions: Prodromal labor is when you have “real” contractions (that are working to soften and dilate your cervix) but they don’t result in labor. They typically do not pick up in intensity and frequency as they go on and can last a few hours, until they abruptly stop. It can be frustrating to experience, but the good news is they’re not for nothing——they are steering you in the right direction for actual labor.

A true contraction: True labor contractions will increase in intensity and frequency as they work efface and dilate your cervix enough for your baby to pass

What Do Labor Contractions Feel Like?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, labor contractions can feel a bit like menstrual cramps at first, but they will intensify and can feel like a strong tightening paired with pelvic pressure. The discomfort moves from the top of the belly to the bottom as your uterus works to push your baby down and out. Since everyone’s tolerance for pain varies, the exact description of the sensation will vary as well. “[Contractions] can feel different for different people. It’s typically described as a very painful menstrual cramp radiating from the back to the front of the abdomen,” says Dr. Sara Twogood, MD, board-certified ob-gyn and co-founder of Female Health Education.

According to Johns Hopkins, labor contractions help your cervix begin to efface (thin) and dilate (open) and eventually, they help to push the baby out of the uterus and through the birth canal to make their big debut.

If you have intense back pain along with your contractions, you may be experiencing what’s called back labor. Some people say back contractions feel like severe lower pain that doesn’t go away in between uterine contractions and just intensifies during them.

Back labor likely occurs due to baby’s positioning in the pelvis (baby’s head pushes against the spine and tailbone with each surge). Moving into different positions can help ease some of the pain. The American Pregnancy Association (APA) recommends walking, squatting, lunging, sitting on a ball or doing pelvic tilts. You may also use natural pain management techniques, like breathing, and/or pain medications, like an epidural, to help manage the pain.

While they can feel very intense and powerful, the good news is that contractions come and go like a wave. They begin, build up in intensity until they peak and then fade away until the next one. Whether you’re having an unmedicated birth or you’re planning to get an epidural, know that each contraction is bringing you closer and closer to finally meeting your baby.

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How to Tell You’re in Labor

Regardless of what contractions feel like to you, Johns Hopkins reports that there are a few ways to know they mean you’re really in labor:

  • They come more often: The time between contractions decreases, and they come more and more frequently.
  • They get stronger: You notice your contractions also get more intense as time goes on.
  • They’re consistent: Instead of being sporadic, labor contractions become more consistent in interval and intensity.

How to Time Contractions

During labor, contractions can last anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute each. As you progress towards active labor (when your cervix reaches six centimeters dilated) they’ll just get closer and closer together and become more powerful. Downloading a contraction timer app can help you keep track of things (and if you’ve already downloaded a pregnancy app, be sure to check for a built-in timer feature).

So how do you know when it’s time to grab your bags and go to the hospital? A handy trick to keep in mind is the “5, 1, 1 rule”: your contractions are five minutes apart and last for about one minute for at least one hour. This is a good sign you’ve reached active labor and it’s time to head to the hospital or birth center. Baby is officially on their way!

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