‘What does a contraction feel like?’ is likely a question keeping you up at night if you’re about to have a baby.
If you’ve never been through labor before and are getting ready for the upcoming birth of your baby, you probably have one question on your mind. What does a contraction feel like?
So what does a contraction feel like exactly?
Contractions feel much like cramps. These cramps start off crampy and then get stronger and stronger as time goes by. The crampy feeling starts in the abdomen and can wrap all the way around your back.
There are no sudden, sharp, stabbing pains in labor. Rather, there is a strong building up of sensation with each contraction. In between contractions, there is a chance to rest.
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This is how some moms answer the question, what does a contraction feel like?
“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 & requires stamina.”
“Like mensural 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.”
You already know what a contraction feels like.
You already know what a contraction feels like because a contraction is just a muscle working. A contraction is your uterus flexing the same way your bicep flexes when you do a bicep curl.
That’s right. A contraction feels just like flexing your bicep because it is the exact same thing.
Flex your arm like Rosie the Riveter. Does it hurt? No. You will notice that the muscles of your bicep now feel hard and condensed and that mentally, your attention has lightly shifted to your arm. This is exactly what is happening when you experience a contraction. Instead of your arm flexing, your uterus, the strongest muscle in your body, is flexing.
You can imagine as you flex many times over and over for most of the day, or if you add weight, that the intensity of the feeling will increase. It will eventually require you to use every coping technique you know and take all your focus and effort. This is what is happening during labor as the uterus flexes and flexes to rotate baby, dilate your cervix and push the baby through the birth canal and into your arms. It is hard work. But birth is physiologically sound and a process you can trust. This is what you are feeling when you feel contractions.
How do contractions feel when they first start?
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. 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.
What does a contraction feel like in early labor?
Eventually, contractions will begin to rev up in length, consistency, and intensity. This is when contractions are really starting to be effective and your cervix dilates from 1cm all the way to 10cm to allow passage of your baby through your body.
Early labor is approximately when you are 3 to 5 cm dilated. One mom describes it like this:
“I feel a slight tightening & pressure in my back, the tight feeling comes with pain behind my belly button that goes straight down to my cervix like she’s got her head bouncing right on it. I can talk through it but it’s easier to breathe through it as it catches me off guard & is mildly painful.”
These contractions progressively get stronger. Imagine now instead of simply flexing your bicep, you are gradually adding more weight. First, you flex with 5lb, then 10lbs then 20lbs, etc. As the weight increases, the amount of focus you need to give to your arm increases. The work is hard and real, but it never feels like tearing or injury. It feels like purposeful, hard work.
Early contractions may last from 30 to 40 seconds and come anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes apart.
They will pass through you much like a wave. At first increasing in intensity, reaching a peak and then releasing.
At this time, 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. Next, you will likely feel a sense of doubt or fear. Many moms think, ‘if it feels like this so early on, will I make it?’ When you feel this, you know that you will soon be through early labor and headed into active labor where the real work begins and the end is in sight.
When do you go to the hospital or ask for a midwife to join you at home?
As labor progresses, contractions will come more frequently, feel more intense and last a bit longer. Now it is as if you have been lifting that weights for a long time and you feel every repetition quite intensely. You are working hard.
You will want to go to the hospital or invite your midwife to join you when your contractions follow an approximate pattern of 5-1-1 this means that they are 5 minutes apart from the start of one to the start of the following one. Each contraction lasts for one 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 a jittery and excited phase and be seriously focused on the work at hand. Though you will still have breaks between contractions, your mind is shifting into a place of being totally focused on labor. You are no longer worrying about anything but what is happening right here, right now.
When are contractions the hardest?
By the time your cervix is 8 to 9 cm dilated, contractions will last about 90 seconds and come every 2 to 4 minutes. Though you will have a break between contractions, it will seem like they are coming one on top of another. By this time, they are sure to be very intense and will require your total attention to get through.
Contractions will still have a peak and flow like waves crashing quickly onshore. Breaking one after the other. This phase will last about 15 minutes to a couple of hours. It could potentially take longer if the baby is malpositioned. This is called transition.
This is how one mom describes what contractions feel like during transition.
“At first, contractions felt like menstrual cramps. Then they started radiating to my back, like a squeezing/tightening sensation. They always had a slow buildup, and the peaks got increasingly more intense, with a slow decline. Then towards transition they were more on top of each other especially the more I moved around. They mostly felt like strong backaches that came and went (I had back labor pretty much the whole time). It was only “unmanageable” during transition but that went away as soon as I started pushing which felt lovely!”
You will need support from your labor team to help you remember that this is labor and it is safe and good. Each contraction has a purpose and a job and is moving your baby closer to you. It is very common for women to feel defeated, discouraged or doubt if they can make it through at this point. As with many good things, the point where you feel there is no possible way to go forward is almost a sure sign you are through the worst of it. A labor coach such as a doula or very prepared partner can help you maintain your focus and give you encouragement through this challenging work.
The pain of labor usually reaches its maximum by 7 or 8 centimeters. Soon you will be pushing and those contractions feel quite different.
What does a contraction feel like in the pushing stage?
Once you are fully dilated, and through transition, you will have contractions that you will push through. If nonmedicated, you likely will not need any guidance and will push naturally with her 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. Contractions when you are ready to push feel very strong, come like waves and 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 very similarly to having to poop If you are medicated, you may not feel the pushing sensations as much and need more guidance.
A normal birthing stage may last from 15 minutes (three to five contractions) to 3 hours or more. For most first-time birth-givers, the birthing stage is completed in up to 3 hours; for most people who have given birth before, in less than 1 hour.
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 overtakesthem
Some women are so focused they appear asleep
What moms are really asking when they ask ‘what does a contraction feel like?’ is ‘how painful is a contraction?’
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? Can they go without pain medication? 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. Just like the way you experience a mile run may be different than the way your mother, sister or best friend experience a mile run.
My best friend is a marathon runner, asking her to describe running is very different than asking me to describe running. She would describe running as exhilarating, challenging, fulfilling, and overall, positive. Even when she is past her peak, and she li limping to the finish line, the benefits of running always outweigh the pain or sacrifice involved.
If I run just a mile, on the other hand, I feel like I’ve put myself through some kind of mid-evil torture.
So to fully understand what to expect when you are in labor. Keep an open mind, knowing that your experience will be uniquely yours. Some women LOVE the experience of labor. Some women HATE the experience of labor. Some women experience ecstatic and joyful labor. Some women experience hard pain from start to finish. All experiences are valid.
The most popular questions I receive about contractions and labor are about pain. Will labor be painful?
Labor is intense. There is no other time in your life that your body works so hard and changes so quickly. Pain, on the other hand, is a little more tricky. Pain has a lot to do with perception. There can be a fine line with coping well and being in control and feeling totally out of control.
One study found in the book Divine Birth looked at all the factors thought to influence the amount of pain a mother feels during labor. It looked at factors such as the size of the mother, the size of the baby, how the birthing mother’s mother experienced labor and length of labor among other factors. The number one thing influencing the amount of pain a mother felt during labor is not a physical attribute of the mother or baby or the mother’s family.
The number one thing influencing how much pain a woman feels in birth is confidence.
The great thing about that is that the more you learn about labor, the more confidence you will have and the less pain you can expect. Even if you do experience pain during labor, you can still have a positive and good birth experience.
What factors can make contractions feel more painful?
These 3 things can make labor more intense and more difficult to get through. A trained birth helper, such as a doula, can help you come up with ways to manage and cope if any of these are part of your experience.
Inductions of any kind typically have increased levels of pain in early labor
Pitocin will increase the intensity and frequency of contractions
A super-fast labor will be more intense
Back labor or a malpositioned baby is more difficult to get through than regular contractions
One of the great things about hiring a doula is that you have a person trained to recognize these labor patterns and they can be proactive about helping you cope with and often even resolve the problem by making simple adjustments to the way you are laboring and providing you additional support and encouragement along the way.