What Do Contractions Feel Like?

What Do Contractions Feel Like?
Photo Credit: Nicole Proy / Mockingbird Photography

If you asked a woman ‘what do contractions feel like?’, you may get a deep-in-thought or confused look back. This is because describing a contraction is something women can find really difficult. I liken it to trying to describe an orgasm, which is equally difficult to explain!

Experiences of contractions and labour pain can vary a great deal from one woman. It can also be different from one labour to the next, and so many factors contribute to what a woman is feeling.

For example, if a baby is in posterior position (their back positioned against your back) then the mother may feel strong back pain on top of normal labour pain, which adds to their account of what labour feels like. Don’t panic if your baby is posterior — it can be more challenging but it can be done. Research optimal fetal positioning and take a peek at the Spinning Babies website.

Some women may have taken Calmbirth or Hypnobirth classes, and find that they manage contractions really well. These women sometimes report feeling minimal pain and may describe birth as easier than they thought.

If a woman has laboured on her back or in a semi-reclining position — which is a more painful (and dysfunctional) way to labour — this can also result in her experience being more painful. She may have been been induced. So before you buy into the endless horror stories that come flying your way as soon as you announce that you’re pregnant, remember that there are so many variations of labour and labour environments.

In addition, women have different levels of birth education, preparation, fitness and health, birth support (partner, family, doula etc), carers with certain philosophies (which may sadly dictate the course of her birth), family of origin stories, as well as her and her partner’s perceptions of pain and what that means in labour.

Fear also increases the amount of pain we feel. How? Fear causes tension, tension causes pain. It’s important to be as loose and relaxed as you can be in labour. Being tight and tense just serves to intensify everything else.

Given that we now lead a very sedentary lifestyle, we don’t push ourselves physically like we used to, so the endurance and stamina involved with labour can be more of a shock. The result? Women tend to seek pain relief much sooner than usual.

But it needn’t be that way with good education, birth skills and preparation. Labour is exactly that – labour – and it needs to be approached like a marathon. Pace yourself, taking it one contraction at a time and knowing that it wont be easy, but it sure as heck will be worth it.

Doulas are truly worth their weight in gold — you might like to consider hiring one. Studies have repeatedly shown that when you give birth with a doula, labours tend to be shorter, less pain relief is requested, mum and dad are more satisfied with the outcome and so much more. Because doulas don’t work for the hospitals (they work for you!), this offers a huge benefit in itself. A review of doula studies concluded that a doula provides more effective birth support than hospital staff or the mother’s family. This is because she is trained and experienced in birth (not medically, that is the doctor or midwives role), provides continuous care, is known to you (not a stranger) and is hired by you – so she supports your wishes and plans. You can find a great doula in our directory here – just click your state to filter the results.

What Do Contractions Feel Like?

So, what do contractions feel like? I asked some BellyBelly forum members to tell us what labour pain felt like to them!

Cailin’s Experience Of Contractions

“Contractions to me are like period pain – the most painful type of period pain, but unlike period pain they have a pattern. With period pain it is consistent and in most cases all over. However I personally found that it came in waves across my tummy and it would rise peak and then ease off towards the end of a contraction. Sometimes other pains would add to the contraction like back pain or pelvic pain but overall the contraction pains are a separate feeling, in my opinion.”

Lucy’s Experience Of Contractions

“For me, contractions felt like this: imagine you are REALLY thirsty, and you finally get your hands on a bottle of water. That drink bottle gets tipped your lips and you drink as if your life depends upon it. You know how the drink bottle contacts in, as you gulp? And with each gulp it contracts more? Until you finally lower the bottle to take a breath yourself? And the water bottle then relaxes and goes back to normal?

I was lucky… I never felt that my contractions actually hurt all that much. But the tightening sensation was out of this world.”

Sam’s Experience Of Contractions

“I would describe contractions to be like a cross between a stitch and the worst pain you get when you have gastro x 100 low down in in the pubic bone and in my bum.

They start and I feel my heart begin to pound and I feel a tightening in my body. They build to a peak when I can’t talk or think about anything, then they begin to ebb and fade away. Between contractions I don’t think about the pain and relax a bit till that next time my heart begins pounding again.”

Shannon’s Experience Of Contractions

“A contraction starts off with a small tingle somewhere in the middle of the torso. I assume this is at the top of the uterus. It grows and grows, feeding the surrounding muscles with a cramp like feeling. It radiates and spreads to the back, down near the tailbone, and starts to ‘bite’ into the muscles like someone is pinching on the spine.

It’s like a tide which pushes and pushes up and up in intensity, while you breathe through it in big deep breaths… until you can feel it ‘let go’ and start to recede back down again. Even though this takes longer than one would like, at least you know that it’s coming to an end and you can feel the release.

It leaves a tingling feeling for a few seconds afterward, but then vanishes completely. I would say it feels like someone rubbing the top of your baby bump, then hands grabbing your belly and starting to squeeze, harder and harder. Then after a few seconds of this, someone else putting their elbow in your back on your spine and pushing and pushing harder and harder, then it all releasing and things going in reverse again until there is no pain.

They are relatively predictable and you can know pretty much how long until the intensity increases. Then, how long until the apex, how long until it starts to ease off and how long until the end of it. Although, it does change slightly as you progress. You can pretty much predict it contraction to contraction and allow for the slight changes.”

Chloe’s Experience Of Contractions

To be honest I don’t have a good memory for anything that is painful – I just block it out. When I was in labour with Imran I felt alot of back pain.

For me early contractions feel a bit like period pain, kind of achy and some lower back pain. The later more intense contractions kind of felt like someone is digging their elbow into your back only more wide spread – kind of like lots of elbows spread out evenly. When I had Yasin the final pushing contraction felt a bit like doing the world’s biggest poo.”

Melanie’s Experience Of Contractions

“Contractions start like the tummy cramps you get with an upset belly. They come every few minutes and make being upright uncomfortable. Then very soon they are so much more intense that they are completely overwhelming. And they are more frequent, so that there is no time to recover from one before the next hits.

Soon getting through the wave of pain is the only focus. You long just for a few minutes to rest but then before the thought is fully formed; there is that all-encompassing pain again. But then it is time to push and the thought pushes into my brain, ‘I am actually helping myself to split in two’.

The pain, discomfort and focus of pushing overtake the pain of the contractions, and suddenly they are the lesser of two evils. Until there is a head to feel, lots of fluffy hair, and then another push and a husband saying “he has boy bits” and the relief (and joy) is so complete. I am so glad that I have done it, given birth without pain relief, but at the same time knowing that it’s not something I ever want to do again… 24 hours later though, I’ve changed my mind and decided I want another baby!”

Recommended Reading For Labour Pain

What Did Contractions Feel Like For You?

Feel free to share your description in the comments below!

Last Updated: April 12, 2015




  1. murder. Mine felt like what I expect being murdered to feel like. Then all of a sudden it’s gone. In an instant. It’s sort of bizarre/wonderful.
    Worth it.

  2. In all honesty my contractions were no where near period pain. Since i had back labour i felt. A really really painfull sort of pressure but at the same time like knife stabs to the lower back. My water had broken ( called doctor) next morning they said i peed my self yeah i knew it was my water. I kept feeling water run down and 3 days later ny son came and the hospital confirmed it was my water. The only sweet thing i remember while being during my contractions was the “need” for my husband to be next to me i literally felt as in they didnt hurt as much when i would hug him tightly. Such a bond. Definitely will have more. Family’s tradition to have lota of son’s and daughters hopefully!!!

  3. Contractions to me, felt like a “snake bite” on your arm.’you know when somenone grabs your arm with both hands and twist opposite directions. My entire mid section,and some times just my back feels as if it is getting a snake bite inside and out.

  4. All of these accounts are giving women false hope going into delivery. I am at the end of my 4th pregnancy, so I have already delivered 3 vaginally. While they varied in type (one back labor, one feeling more like hot knives cutting through my abdomen, and one similar to the contraction of muscle claudation), they were all excruciating. Mind you, I normally have a very high pain tolerance. I’ve had bones set and stitches placed without anesthesia as I do not mind the pain as much as the drugs. I do not even use pain medication after surgery. Labor is painful!
    Additionally, I am a nurse and have helped other women deliver babies. There are very few who have the experiences described above. More often than not it is a very painful experience for women. Do not get your hopes up that you will be one of the few lucky people who feel “cramping” or “tingling” because if you are underprepared going into delivery, it will be much harder for you if you have a rough labor. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.

  5. Personally, I couldn’t remember how painful (IT’S JUST PAINFUL) being in labour is. And I just gave birth 7 months ago. What I can remember though is whenever my contractions were starting, I had to focus on my breathing because if I didn’t I might have pushed too early. Its more like a battle between pushing and breathing deeply. I was just 3cm dilated when my labor started (not enough to be admitted to the hospital, but I insisted). I labored for 29 hours and it was really tiring. I couldn’t eat nor sleep properly and I had to go the bathroom for how many times. And I just wanted to hit my other midwife ( i had 2 widwives attending me) because she was insisting me to walk to speed up my labour. How could she ask me to walk when I was so weak. (Looking back, I knew it was irrational but when your in labour you become irrational). My knees were trembling and I could feel my energy draining with each contraction. I did nipple-pinching until I couldn’t do no more. Fast forward, I was fully dilated and the midwives had to rupture my water bag because it didn’t broke so that they could deliver my baby. It took me four big pushes to get my baby out. I didn’t cry at all during those hours of labouring away but boy did i cry when the midwife(Yes, the one who asked me to walk) had to stitch me up. I had minor tears (a little tear on my vaginal wall and perineum) but when she was stitching me I had to scream stop. It was like she didn’t use anaesthesia. (Her revenge because I was a stubborn pregnant labouring woman, or maybe its just my imagination.) I guess you could always prepare for the perfect birthing but you just have to expect the unexpected. My birth story might not be perfect but I would not change anything in it all.

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