What do contractions feel like?

It's probably what many pregnant women worry about most: How much will labor hurt? Real moms and a doctor explain what to expect when it comes to contractions.

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Every mom-to-be has wondered what childbirth is going to feel like. Are the contractions really as painful as they appear in TV and movies? How do I know if they’re just Braxton Hicks? We turned to a doctor and real women who have been there to get the scoop.

Contractions actually feel different if you’re in early labor versus active labor. “Contractions typically start as irregular cramping,” explains Bat-Sheva Lerner Maslow, an obstetrician and a reproductive endocrinologist at Extend Fertility. “This occurs to soften and ripen the cervix for labor. They can stop and start over the course of hours or days—or sometimes even weeks!—prior to actual labor and are sometimes referred to as false, latent or early labor.”

Pregnant woman holding her bellyHow do I know if I’m having real contractions or false labour? So, how do you know if it’s real labor and not just false labor? “True labor is progressive, meaning that the contractions get stronger and more frequent with every passing hour,” explains Maslow. Eventually, your early labor will progress to rhythmic contractions that are much stronger and come every 10 minutes or so for more than two hours in a row. This is usually the point where you should get someone to call your doctor or midwife to see if you should go in to be evaluated.

In order to get the cervix to dilate, contractions typically get to the point where you can’t really walk or talk through them because they’re so painful. Every woman hits active labor at a different point, but it typically happens when the cervix has dilated to between four and six centimetres. At this stage, the contractions are exceptionally strong and your cervix should dilate progressively every few hours (usually by about one centimetre an hour) until you deliver. The main distinction between active labor and early labor is that, once active labor starts, it shouldn’t stop until the baby is born. If it does stop, it might be a sign that there is a problem or it wasn’t actually active labor.

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

“Braxton Hicks are irregular contractions that usually occur at the top of the uterus,” says Maslow. “Typically, they aren’t forceful enough to cause the cervix to dilate and aren’t particularly rhythmic, meaning that you may have a few in a row, but they won’t be consistent over a few hours.” These can start very early in your pregnancy (as early as 24 weeks), though most women usually don’t experience them until the third trimester. Braxton Hicks contractions are uncomfortable but not usually painful. Once you know what they are, they aren’t cause for concern. Here are a few ways to relieve Braxton Hicks contractions.

What do back contractions feel like?

Back labor usually happens when the baby’s face is facing up rather than down, and most women describe the pain as intense. “Most babies deliver facing towards their moms’ backs, which allows the narrowest diameter of the head to get through the pelvis,” says Maslow. “Occasionally, babies are ‘sunny side up,’ or occiput posterior. This puts a lot of pressure on the mother’s back and, therefore, she may experience her contractions as rhythmic back pain rather than cramping.” But some moms experience back labor even when their babies are in the face down position.

Real moms on what contractions feel like

“For me, they feel like period cramps times 10, wrapped around your pelvis and back. For men reading this, remember that time when you got food poisoning and spent 24 hours doubled over in pain and in fear of involuntary defecation? Like that, except times 10.” – Shelsey

“Contractions feel like the rumbling of a subway train before you see it on the tracks. You feel the pressure and sensation, just like when the train is approaching the station.” – Janet 

“When I was pregnant, I was terrified of childbirth. I was a broken record with every mom I knew, asking over and over again for frank descriptions of what contractions felt like and getting really frustrated when they couldn’t come up with a clear explanation. Now I am one of those moms—I get it. You can’t really compare it to anything because there’s nothing like it. The most helpful thing I can say is to make a fist as tightly as you possibly can and then imagine some force that makes it 1,000 times tighter. The pressure hurts. But to me, the worst thing wasn’t the pain; it was the discomfort. The whole experience felt like having to go to the bathroom (not number one) in the worst way without getting any relief for hours. I kept jumping up and demanding to go to the bathroom, which was uneventful, and it was a process since I was being induced and hooked up to 1,000 things. Once I got an epidural at nine centimetres, I could still feel the contractions, but they were different. They were just painless waves of tightening in my stomach and were actually really helpful to tell me when to push.” – Casey 

“My labor pains felt like someone was squeezing my insides. I didn’t want any drugs. I went 20 hours with no medication, and then I couldn’t take the pain anymore and demanded the medication, but the doctors took so long that I started crying. I have two children and, with the second pregnancy, the labor pain was so bad, I threw up.” – Tamara, blogger at Simply T Nicole 

“I went in a few days before my due date and they hooked me up to a machine that measures contractions. While I was hooked up to the machine, I kept telling my husband that I was really hungry. When the doctor returned, he stated that ‘Yes, I was having contractions.’ I told him I didn’t feel them. I was confusing my contractions for hunger pains. I thought I was hungry, but I was actually contracting.” – Jennifer 

“I have broken my ankle and been in all kinds of accidents and none ever compared to the feeling of having my flesh stretched out from the inside. I had contractions every two or three minutes for 14 hours and 45 minutes. The best way to describe the general feeling is like there’s a little alien in your body trying to escape. There’s nothing to compare it to, except that sh*t hurts! It hurts so much, my epidural did nothing—it was like putting a bandage on an amputated limb. After the first time, I threw up. I remember crying and asking my friend if it was too late to change my mind. I might have PTSD from those contractions.” – Brandice

“I had contractions for more than six hours for each of my babies, and I think they feel like an inflated ball inside your womb. It was as if a ball was being inflated inside my womb and then being slowly deflated. After two minutes, the ball was being inflated and deflated again.” – Surabhi, blogger at womanatics.com

“Contractions feel like nothing that anyone on this earth can ever prepare themselves for. The pain wasn’t that unbearable for me, but it was very uncomfortable. When labor begins, the baby is moving through the birth canal, which is what makes you feel like you must push. It can take hours or days, but it all depends on how fast the baby wants to enter this world. No matter how much pain and agony you’re in, once that baby arrives and the doctor hands him or her to you, it’s so worth it. You will then experience a love like no other!” – Sherese 

“I had a water birth with no epidural and can graphically describe the ring of fire that contractions create. I describe contractions as someone inside of me taking their two hands and pulling my vagina apart. I liken it to an exorcism of a demon leaving the body—not that I’m calling my daughter a demon. This was up and down. The relaxation after a contraction was misleading and created an anxiety of the anticipation of pain to come.” – AkilahSiti

“Contractions are going to feel different for different moms. For myself, I felt my abdomen tightening really hard, along with the same pain you might feel if you’re constipated. The pain is also different for each person. I lucked out and was able to sleep through them the entire evening and set the alarm to wake myself up to see if they were still happening every five minutes. Both times, I sent my husband to go to work or to a movie—he refused and took us to the hospital to welcome our baby.” – Enza, mom blogger at enzasbargains.com

Read more:
6 ways to make your labor and delivery easier (yes, it’s possible)
Your guide to labor-pain management

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