Contractions: What Do They Feel Like?

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Published On
14 Aug, 2023
Read Time
6 minutes

As a soon-to-be parent, the thought of labour can be daunting and overwhelming. One of the most common questions expecting parents have is, "What do contractions feel like?" Contractions are a sign that your body is preparing for childbirth, but everyone experiences them differently. Some describe them as menstrual cramps, while others compare them to intense pressure or tightening.

In this blog, we'll explore early labour pains, Braxton Hicks, and the different types of contractions and what they feel like so that you can be better prepared for the big day.

What do contractions feel like?

The truth is, contractions feel very different for every pregnant person and it's hard to describe exactly how they will feel for you.

Usually, people experience a wave of pain that peaks and then eases. Some people find them very painful, while others find them easier to manage.

They're sometimes described as a tightening and hardening of the stomach followed by pain with extreme cramping in your lower stomach, and some people feel contractions in their back, and this is usually because of the position of their baby.

Typically, contractions are a sign that labour is starting, so if you're experiencing them, you should speak to your midwife or maternity unit.

What do early contractions feel like?

Early contractions can feel like a dull ache or cramp in the lower abdomen or back, like menstrual cramps. Some people may also experience a tightening or pressure sensation in the pelvic area. Early contractions are not as intense as full labour contractions.

Where do you feel contractions?

Every person's experience of contractions is unique, and where you feel contraction pain depends on the position of your baby.

If your baby is head down but looking forward, you may feel them most in your back. If they're positioned differently, you may feel them in your lower stomach where period cramps typically occur. Some people also feel pain at the top of their legs.

Where do contractions start? 

Contractions typically start in the back or lower abdomen.  

What are contractions?

Contractions are typically a sign that labour is about to begin. They happen when your uterus tightens during a contraction and your cervix opens to push the baby down and out.

Let's run through the different kinds of contractions one by one.

Types of contractions

Braxton Hicks or practice contractions

These tightenings (that begin at the top of your bump and spread down) are usually not too painful and can be experienced during pregnancy, particularly in the second or third trimester. They usually last for between 30 and 60 seconds and are expected. Think of them as your body getting ready for the real thing during birth.

Preterm labour

If you experience actual labour contractions before your pregnancy reaches full term, these are referred to as preterm contractions. This term is used when labour commences before you hit the 37th week of pregnancy. Don't hesitate to get in touch with your midwife or doctor if you think you may be going into premature labour.

Labour contractions

These are the real deal, aka the contractions that don't subside and result in the birth of your baby. Typically, they happen a week or two before or after your due date, but if you think you might be experiencing them at any point during your pregnancy, it's crucial to contact your doctor or midwife right away.

Not sure whether what you're feeling are Braxton Hicks or true labour contractions? It's best to ask your midwife or doctor for advice.

How to time contractions

Unlike Braxton Hicks, labour contractions happen at regular intervals and get closer together in time as labour progresses. The closer you get to delivery, they become stronger, longer, and more frequent, so it's important to keep track of their timing and intensity to determine when it's time to go to the hospital.

When the time comes, your healthcare provider will give you instructions on how to time your contractions, but generally, you should start heading to the hospital when your contractions are happening every four to five minutes and lasting for about a minute at a time.

If you live far from the hospital, you may want to leave earlier to give yourself extra time to get there.

Other signs of labour

During the early (latent) stage of labour, many people experience other symptoms alongside contractions. Let's run through the other signs of labour to look out for.

The 'show'

As you approach labour, you may experience a discharge of mucus from your cervix, known as a show. This jelly-like pink mucus may come out in one piece or several and contains a small amount of blood. It's a sign that your cervix is starting to open, but labour may occur immediately or take a few days. Keep in mind that not all pregnant people experience a show.

Feeling like you need to go to the toilet

Baby's head is pressing on your bowel and bladder can cause a sudden urge to pee or poo.

Backache and nausea

Some people feel sick suddenly and develop an unusual backache when their labour is starting.

Waters breaking

During labour, the sac surrounding the baby ruptures, and clear and pale amniotic fluid drains out through the vagina. This is commonly referred to as "waters breaking" and can happen at the start of labour, later during labour, or even before labour starts in some cases.

This is a sure sign that baby will arrive soon and it's common to go into labour within 24 hours of your waters breaking, but it's often not as dramatic as the movies make it out to be! Some people only experience a slow trickle of amniotic fluid, while others experience a sudden gush. 

Once you suspect your waters have broken, you should contact your maternity unit or midwife.

Your midwife or doctor may offer to break your waters when you're in labour if they've not already broken naturally, and you should tell your midwife immediately if:

  • the waters are smelly or coloured
  • you're losing blood

When to call the midwife or doctor

If you have any concerns about your contractions or labour, it's always best to speak with your healthcare provider.

Early labour can take a long time, but you should call the midwife if:

  • you have vaginal bleeding
  • you're less than 37 weeks pregnant
  • your waters break
  • your baby is moving less than usual
  • your contractions are every five minutes and last at least 60 seconds

How to manage the pain of contractions

Let's run through some of the ways you can help manage the pain of contractions throughout labour. Remember that everyone is different, what helps one person, may not work so well for another, so it's important to advocate for yourself and be clear about what you need during labour.

During early labour

  • Drink plenty of fluids: Staying hydrated is important during labour and some people find that drinking isotonic sports drinks helps to keep their energy levels up.
  • Try relaxation and breathing exercises: If you attended antenatal classes during your pregnancy, now's the time to put any relaxation techniques you may have learned to good use.
  • Have a warm bath: Many people find that being in warm water helps ease the discomfort of contractions.
  • Walk or move about: If you feel like it, kneeling, walking around, rocking backwards and forwards or bouncing on a birth ball might help.
  • Have a snack: Some people find that snacking throughout their labour helps to keep their energy levels up.
  • Take paracetamol: Paracetamol is safe to take in labour when taken according to the instructions on the box.
  • TENS machine: TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines work by telling the body to produce more of its own natural painkillers (endorphins). They're small, portable devices that can be used during the early stages, when you may have lower back pain.

During labour

  • Massage: Some people ask their birth partner to rub their back. This can help relieve pain, but others find that they prefer not to be touched during labour.
  • Gas and air: Gas and air is easy to use, and you control it yourself. It can help reduce pain during labour, but it won't remove it completely.
  • Epidural: An epidural involves the injection of a local anaesthetic into the space around the spinal cord, which numbs the lower half of the body.