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woman experiencing a contraction what it feels like

What Does A Contraction Feel Like? 15 Moms Spill All The Details

the ultimate guide to your question: what does a contraction feel like

If you’ve been pregnant for a hot minute, there is probably one question looming over your mind, ‘What does a contraction feel like, exactly?’

I remember feeling absolutely overjoyed when I found out I was pregnant. This feeling of elation was closely followed by a complete and utter terror of what it would mean to get a baby out of my body. It didn’t help that all my friends liked to tell me their worst stories about how hard labor really is.

But, truth be told, labor is not that scary when you know what to expect. If you are feeling freaked out about labor, you are in the right place. Taking a high quality childbirth course can help you really feel prepared for birth from start to finish. But this article is a great place to get started tackling your anxiety and getting a good idea about what to expect.

This article will answer all your questions about what contractions are, what contractions feel like in each stage of birth, when you need to call your midwife, and even what contractions feel like for your baby.

Let’s get started!

What Are Contractions 101

woman with her partner both hands on her belly as she has a contraction so he can feel what a contractions feels like

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Contractions are a sensation you feel during birth as your body works to get your baby out of your body. When you feel a contraction, you are feeling the uterus, the largest muscle in your body, flexing.

One thing to know is that contractions are not the same from start to finish. In fact, they start out pretty easy, and are intense, but still manageable for most of labor. This is even more true if you have the right tools to help you.

You Have Felt A Contraction Before

a contraction feel like a woman flexing her arm picture of woman flexing arm

Do you want to know a secret? You already know exactly what a contraction feels like because you have experienced it many times before.

Flex your arm then relax it. It’s easy, right? Your arm just contracted. That is what a contraction feels like, except for it is your utuerus contracting not your arm.

Now imagine doing that for 14 hours gradually increasing the weight and intensity and time of each ‘rep’ (contraction) each time you flex your arm.

That is what is happening during labor. Your uterus muscles are flexing (contracting) over and over again. As it continues to flex (contract) repetitions get stronger and more intense.

uterus muscle contraction in labor

The uterus is the largest muscle in your body, which is why it feels like so much hard work when you are in labor. Your body is working very hard. Some women interpret this intense work as pain, but some do not. . If you have ever worked out to the point of exhaustion, and then some, you know a bit about what labor is like.

I remember when I was a track runner, there were some days I would train so hard I would throw up during training. My muscles would be tired and shaky. I was past my normal limits.

Labor brings many people past their normal limits. It is normal to throw up, get shaky muscles, or have moments of complete overwhelm and doubt. That’s why many moms take classes to prepare, especially if they are first time moms.

But the good thing about labor is unlike a sport, you don’t have to push yourself through it.

Your body already knows how to give birth. Your biggest challenge is getting out of your head and letting your body do its work. For just as your heart knows how to pump, and your lungs know how to breathe, your uterus knows how to move a baby out of your vagina.

Labor is hard work. But birth is a physiologically sound process you can trust.

Do Contraction Feel The Same To Everyone?

One thing many moms find surprising is that the level of pain associated with labor varies significantly from woman to woman. Factors that can increase or decrease pain levels are your mindset, your stress levels, your baby’s positioning within your pelvis, the tone of your birth canal and pelvic floor, and even the flexibility of your hips.

Contractions That Do Not Lead To Labor

Most of the time, when people are asking ‘what does a contraction feel like?’ they are talking about contractions during labor. However, there are a few other things you need to know about contractions before we get to those. Surprisingly, there are other types of contractions that do not lead to labor. This is what you need to know about those contractions.

Braxton Hicks Contractions: Braxton Hicks contractions are a slight tensing and releasing of the uterus muscle. These contractions are like a simple easy flex, like doing bicep curls with a pencil. EASY!

They do not hurt, they are not intense.

These contractions start around 6 weeks gestation, but you may not notice them until your second or third trimester if you notice them at all. These are warm-up contractions and are totally normal and safe. You can continue going about your day as you typically would when you notice these.

Prodromal Labor Contractions: Prodromal labor is when you feel like you are in early labor, but the contractions aren’t creating a steady pattern or are not getting more intense. These are more noticeable than Braxton Hicks and are similar to the early labor contractions below.

They may or may not be intense enough to cause pain. If you think you are experiencing prodromal labor, check with your midwife or doctor to get advice on how to move things along. You can also refer to my prodromal labor guide here.

If you are trying to tell the difference timing your contractions and looking for patterns can help! Make sure to check out our guide on how to time contractions so you know how to do that!

Real Contractions That Do Lead To Labor

real contractions women having a contraction in cat cow position leaning on bed what a contraction feels like

Real Contractions: Most people who are asking ‘what does a contraction feel like?’ are asking about the contractions that happen during labor. These are the contractions you feel when you are going to meet your baby. The onset of these contractions means you are almost done with pregnancy and will hold your baby soon!

You will feel labor contractions begin between 37-42 weeks. Some people wonder what do contractions feel like at 37 weeks vs 40 weeks? The answer is the same. Whether you have your baby early or late, as long as it is during this time period your contractions will follow the same progression. What contractions feel like will change as you go through each stage:

  1. Prelabor
  2. Early labor
  3. Active labor
  4. Transition
  5. Pushing
  6. Delivering the placenta

Once this process starts, it will be over within a day or two – in very rare cases it can take another day on top of that. It’s occasionally possible that you will have a false labor where labor starts and stops a bit before it really gets going. It is also possible to have a prolonged pre or early labor where contractions aren’t really interfering with your day and aren’t coming frequently. That is totally normal and fine. However, once you truly hit active labor, labor is typically going to be over typically in the same day. The end is in sight.

So What Does A Contraction Feel Like Exactly?

Prelabor: How Do Contractions Feel When They First Start?

prelabor contractions and what prelabor feels like

When contractions first start, they feel just like your arm flexing. Many women will first observe that their tummy looks hard and well, flexed. But it does not require much attention or focus. This is like a bicep curl with a two-pound weight. Prelabor contractions happen without you thinking much of it.

In prelabor, contractions are mostly gentle flexes that can be observed and enjoyed. You can use this time to bake cookies, prepare your house for baby, or just enjoy the last day or days with the baby inside.

Typically early or prelabor can go on for a few hours to a few days to a few weeks. Contractions last only a few seconds and can have several minutes or hours between them.

This is a time to relax, rest, and find a sense of peace and excitement. These contractions are doing work and creating change in your body and they do not hurt. Soon they will increase in intensity and require more focus from you. 

Some women describe these prelabor contractions like mild cramps or gas pains. Other signs of prelabor are your baby dropping down, losing your mucus plug, a bloody show, or a mild backache.

Early Labor: What Do Early Labor Contractions Feel Like?

woman having contraction in early labor

What do contractions feel like as you move from prelabor to early labor? Early labor is when your contractions turn into real contractions. They are no longer a dull ache. They have a start, middle, and end, and there is a rest in between.

There are no sudden, sharp, stabbing pains in labor. Rather, there is a building up of sensation with each contraction. Your uterus muscle flexes tight, tighter, then begins to release and relax until you find your break between. There is a chance to rest between contractions.

Most women will feel this sensation move from the top of their uterus downwards. But it can also wrap around to your back or mainly be felt like your back tightening depending on how your baby is positioned.

This Is How Moms Answer The Question What Does A Contraction Feel Like In Early Labor?

I guess strong cramps on a mission is the best way to describe it. I don’t really think they are painful but it can be really intense & require stamina.

Claudia, Mom of Two

Like cramps but with a rise, climax and fall, and then a pain-free space in between to relax and catch your breath. Natural contractions also feel purposeful, like if you’re focused you can feel them pushing your baby down. 

Kathy, Mom of Three

Like a giant squeezing your abdomen. Everything gets really tight and then releases slowly and then you get a break before you do it again.

Lisa, Mom of Two

I felt a slight tightening & pressure in my back. The tight feeling came with pain behind my belly button that went down to my cervix. It almost felt like she had her head bouncing right on it. I could talk through it but it was easier to breathe through these contractions as they caught me off guard & were mildly painful.

Jennifer. Mom of One

Early Labor Contractions 101

women having a contraction sitting on a chair

Early labor contractions are contractions that take place when you are 3-5 centimetres dilated.

These early contractions may last from 30 to 40 seconds and come anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes apart. That means the contraction is building for about 15 to 20 seconds and then peaks and has 15 to 20 seconds of decreasing intensity before the rest.

These contractions will feel like they are passing through you much like a wave. At first increasing in intensity, reaching a peak, and then releasing. Early labor can last a few hours to a few days. But if it lasts a few days, you can typically still go about your normal routine because it’s not until you are close to active labor that these contractions start to feel intense.

Though you can’t always speed up labor – sometimes you can do things to help it get moving along if your body is ready. I teach about which positions and movements will encouragee your labor to get established in my course Birth Undone.

At the beginning of early labor, you will likely emotionally be feeling a mix of excitement and curiosity. Things are happening. A rhythm and pattern are being established and you know that this is it. Labor has begun and you will have your baby in your arms soon.

Your emotional state will tell you a lot about where you are in labor. When you leave the space of feeling nervous excitement to a sense of ‘wow this is hard’ or ‘if it feels like this so early on, will I make it?’ you know you are getting close to active labor.

You will also know you are moving on to the next phase when you can no longer talk through contractions and you stop doing anything other than contracting, resting, and focusing on labor.

As a doula, I love the moment of doubt because it is an emotion every woman passes through as they shift into true active labor.

When Do You Go To The Birth Center or Invite Your Midwife To Join You At Home?

As labor progresses, contractions will come more frequently, feel more intense, and last up to a minute.

You will want to go to the hospital or birth center, or invite your midwife to join you for a home birth when your contractions follow an approximate pattern of 5-1-1 or 4-1-1.

This means that contractions are 5 minutes apart from the start of one contraction to the start of the following contraction. Each contraction lasts for a full minute and contractions have held this pattern for an hour. At this time, each contraction will require all your focus. You will not be able to speak through them.

Emotionally, you will have moved past feeling jittery and excited to being totally focused on the work at hand. Though you will still have breaks between contractions, your mind is shifting into a place of being totally immersed in labor and you will need that time between contractions to rest. You are no longer worrying about anything but what is happening right here, right now.

You want to go to the birth center when you have reached both the 5-1-1 labor contraction count and you’ve reached the stage of totally focused on your labor and nothing else. If you are trying to stay home as long as possible before heading in, it is usually okay to wait until contractions are four minutes apart (4-1-1). Contractions usually won’t be longer than a minute long until you hit transition.

Active Labor: What Do Contractions Feel Like In Active Labor?

woman resting between contractions active labor

This Is How Moms Answer The Question What Does A Contraction Feel Like In Early Labor?

Active contractions are just like early contractions but so intense. They had me feeling raw with the intensity.

Katie, Mom of 1

It’s like your body is preparing for a big finale. The contractions almost pass through you like a wave. It builds up, reaches its peak, and then you just have to ride it until it’s gone. Then sink as deep as you can into your rest because you will need your energy to do it again. It’s hard, fierce work. It made me feel strong and capable even as I was working through my doubt and wondering if I could do it.

Paula, Mom of 5

The thing I love about active labor is that even though it’s intense, it’s purposeful. This is when I feel both powerful and vulnerable. The contractions are strong, like when I do a HIIT workout. It’s not sharp or painful the way an injury is, but it’s powerful and crazy that my body doing this. My body and mind are focused because they are reaching new limits and doing something amazing. I rest between each one because each contraction is work. But really my body is doing its thing and I just have to detach from it. It’s a cool feeling to be in your body but also removed from your body because you can’t really control what is going on anymore. You just enter this place of trust and allowing and work.

Michelle, Mom of 2

Active Labor 101

From a mom’s perspective, real labor starts when early labor starts. That is when you notice contractions and they start being a part of your attention and focus. However, from a medical standpoint, real labor is when active labor starts.

Active labor starts when you are at 6 centimeters dilated. It usually lasts about 3-4 hours. Though it can be shorter or longer. This is when you might feel shaky, throw up or feel like you are very hot or cold or both.

There is a very real emotional shift when you enter active labor. Each contraction requires total concentration to relax through. You will use all the labor tools you practiced and prepared. And you will also usually feel focused. It is important to limit distractions, interruptions, and anything that would pull you out of your ‘zone.’

It is also important to have someone that can help you if you start feeling overwhelmed. Much like surfing or riding a wave, this time can feel fine, but if you get pulled under or overtaken by the intensity, you will need someone to help you get back up and return to your comfort zone.

Transition: What Do Contractions Feel Like In Transition?

transition contractions in labor and what they feel like woman having a contraction

This Is How Moms Answer The Question What Does A Contraction Feel Like In Transition?

Transition was the only time that I felt contractions were unmanageable and I felt freaked out. Contractions were right on top of each other, especially if I moved around. The felt mostly like strong backaches that came and went all the way through my body. Luckily that went away as soon as I started pushing which felt lovely!

Abbey, Mom of 1

I was only in transition for 5 minutes but Holy Hell that was an intense 5 minutes. Thank God this part of labor passes quickly. It’s intense like your body is going to break in half and then it’s over. My only suggestion is to trust your body and know it won’t last. You have to go through it to get to the other side and you will get through it.

Gina, Mom of 1

When I hit transition with my last birth I almost went into panic mode. I squeezed my husband’s hand so hard I thought I would break it. He held eye contact with me and helped me breathe and it was over really fast. It was the only time I truly felt scared, but it was here and then it was gone. You know what they say, just when you don’t think you can do it anymore is when you are almost done.

Sarah, Mom of 5

Transition feels like being totally overwhelmed emotionally, physically, spiritually, in every way. I always thought I would handle labor by being quiet and still so I could channel my inner strength but when I get to transition I get this panicky feeling, I just can’t get into that space. So I go the opposite direction, I crank my music and embrace deep loud moans and movement. When the intensity rises so do I.

Erika, Mom of 3

Transition 101

If you ever asked ‘when are contractions the hardest?’ this is it. Transition is the moment when labor is at that place of being overwhelmingly hard and many women feel panicky or flighty. Some women go really meditative and silent to cope, others go really loud and move a lot. You will know what is best for you.

This is when your cervix is dilated to 8-9 cm. Your contractions will last about 90 seconds and come every 2 to 4 minutes from the start of one to the start of another one. You can see the contractions are longer, stronger, and closer together. Like waves breaking over or through you one after another. This phase is usually over very quickly. It only lasts 15 minutes to a couple of hours. If the baby is in a difficult position, it could last a bit longer. But usually not.

There are certain breathing patterns that can help you cope with this part of labor if you won’t have an epidural during it. I can teach you. about them in my birth course!

Pushing: What Do Contractions Feel Like When You Are Pushing?

newborn baby

This Is How Moms Answer The Question What Does A Contraction Feel Like When Pushing?

The urge to push is kinda like when you vomit. It’s an overpowering feeling and you can’t really stop it. The more you try to stop it, the more painful it is. I felt if I pushed with the same force of the contraction or pain, I could numb the pain with the effort of my push. It was cool.

Rebecca, Mom of 2

Pushing contractions are so hard to describe. Your body is taking over and you can’t do anything about it. When I felt a contraction I had to just push with all my energy. It’s like I had no other choice. Listening to my body and doing what it wanted was right. Mentally, I was so far off in labor land, I was barely aware of anything other than birthing. I don’t think I could do it any other way. My body completely took over. I wouldn’t call this phase painful, but took every ounce of energy I had left and then some.

Natalie, Mom of 2

I’ve had two babies and pushing felt different each time. The first time I was scared and nervous and pushing felt pretty painful like my tailbone was breaking. But the second time, I felt more prepared and had done it before. I had more confidence and pushing actually felt good. Like a huge wave that went through me and pushing with that power was sweet relief. I think learning to relax made a big difference. Instead of bracing against the pain, I was working with it. But also, you can’t always choose how your birth unfolds, you just learn how to appreciate it for what it is.

Steph, Mom of 2

Pushing Contractions 101

Once you are fully dilated, and through transition, you will have contractions that you will push through. If nonmedicated, you likely will not need much guidance and will push naturally with your contractions. Many moms feel a great sense of purpose and are so focused working through the contractions, the pain is not as great as transition.

If you do have an epidural, this part can be a bit confusing as you are trying to use muscles that you can’t really feel. An epidural is essentially a spinal block, so you’re pushing with muscles you don’t have much feeling or connection to. That’s why learning to feel the muscles you push with before labor is really important if you’re choosing an epidural.

Contractions when you are ready to push feel very strong. The contractions last for about 2 minutes with about 3 minutes in between. Your body will have a strong, unmistakable urge to push. You will feel the pressure of your baby low in your butt, very similar to having to poop. If you are medicated, you may not feel the pushing sensations as much and need more guidance.

The pushing stage may last from 15 minutes (three to five contractions) to 3 hours or more. For most first-time birthers, the birthing stage is completed in up to 4 hours; for most people who have given birth before, in less than 1 hour. As always, some moms will take more or less time than this.

Delivering The Placenta: What Do Contractions Feel Like When You Are Delivering The Placenta?

woman holding newborn contractions while delivering the placenta

This Is How Moms Answer The Question What Does A Contraction Feel Like When Delivering The Placenta?

I sat in bed snuggling my baby smelling their head and waited. It was mildly painful, but not really. By that time, you’ve done so much, it doesn’t seem like much at all.

Becky, Mom of 1

I was so focused on my baby, I wasn’t really focused on delivering the placenta. I mean, I remember bearing down a few times, and it hurt a tiny bit. However, it didn’t take my attention the way the rest of the labor did. I was enjoying my baby. I used cramp bark for the afterpains.

Emily. Mom of 1

Delivering The Placenta 101

Delivering the placenta is quick and easy compared to the rest of birth. It usually takes anywhere from five to 20 minutes sometime in the first hour or so after birth. You will have contractions that last about a minute each. If you are busy nursing or playing with your baby, you may not even notice them. The placenta detaches from the uterus and exits out of the birth canal. Then, you are officially done birthing!

What Does A Contraction Feel Like With An Epidural

Many moms choose to use an epidural during labor. Epidurals are amazing pain management tools. When an epidural is working properly, you won’t feel your contractions at all. Or, if it is done lightly, you may feel just enough so you are aware of when you are contracting. This means you can be so comfortable that you can sleep through something as intense as transition.

However, it is important to remember that epidurals also have some draw backs. If you have an epidural, you may need much more coaching to push your baby out. You won’t be able to feel your contractions as much and will have a lot of mental work to do to figure out the movement.

Epidurals also sometimes leave windows, where you can still feel contractions in one part of your body.

Also, you should know, While you won’t feel the pain that comes with a contraction, you will feel the pressure of your baby coming through your birth canal. Some moms are surprised that birth can still be painful and hard work, even with an epidural.

For strategies on how to have a positive birth with or without an epidural, check out my birth class here.

What Does A Contraction Feel Like For Baby?

contractions what they feel like for baby

Some moms wonder how a baby copes with contractions. If contractions are so intense for mom, what is the baby experiencing? Babies are just fine during contractions. They are made to go through your birth canal and it is safe for them to do so.

Babies can move during labor, they can also be found sleeping even during intense contractions. They are also filled with the love hormone oxytocin, which is pumping through both mom and baby at very high levels during labor. The compression in the birth canal also helps your baby expel mucus and fluid from their lungs so they are ready to start breathing one they are born!

I like to think of it like this. have you ever had someone give you a great big hug that kinda knocks the wind out of you for a brief moment? That’s probably a lot like what your baby is feeling like during birth.

What Does A Woman Look Like When She Is Having A Contraction?

Women can cope with contractions in a wide variety of ways. These are all women working through contractions.

Some women look very emotional:

Some woman are in the throws of hard work:

Some women say it is like a primal power overtakes them:

Some women are so focused they appear asleep:

How Painful Are Contractions?

woman having a contraction with counterpressure and support from partner

Almost every mom I’ve spoken with wonders about how painful labor really is. Will it be too much or them? Do they need pain medication? Do they want to try without it? Is that even possible?

All of these questions are very subjective, as is the actual pain of labor. The truth is everyone experiences contractions differently. The way you describe and experience contractions may be different than the way your mother, sister, or best friend experiences contractions. In fact, the way you experience contraction pain can even change from your first birth to your next birth.

Other factors, such as your mindset, your baby’s positioning within your pelvis, and how flexible and toned your pelvis is, can affect how painful your birth will be as well. Fortunately, you have a lot of power over these factors. You can learn how to handle contractions like the powerful boss woman you are in my class Birth Undone.