“Oh, you'll know. You will definitely know what a contraction is as soon as you feel it.”
If you've asked mothers what contractions feel like, chances are you’ve never heard the same answer twice. From “intense”, to “painful” and even “ecstatic”, the way that contractions are described can vary greatly.
When we hear a responses like these, we aren't really informed about what to expect.
There’s nothing like birth, and as a first time mother-to-be, we don’t have anything to benchmark it against.
Wondering about what contractions are going to feel like is likely to bring up feelings of fear and have you questioning (probably more than once) if you’re going to be able to cope. That’s a natural response and even part of your preparation for your birth. After all, birth is the biggest physical, emotional and psychological experience you’ll probably ever know.
Questions you’re probably asking yourself include, “How will I definitely know that I’m having a contraction?”, “Is it because it is will be so painful?”, and “How can I prepare to cope if I don't know what to expect?” These questions can leave us wondering more than we were before asking them.
Here are some answers that we hope help you prepare for your birth with more knowing and peace of mind:
Why Do Women Feel Contractions So Differently?
Every pregnancy, every baby, every mother and every birth are unique. Our beliefs about birth, baby's position, interventions or the lack of them, your birthing environment and more, can impact how contractions feel.
A woman with little preparation might find contractions overwhelming. There is a lot to be said for the fear of the unknown. When you experience a new sensation you might be in fear which can cause more pain. Dr. Grantly Dick-Read explained this process as the fear-tension-pain cycle. When we are in fear, we tense up. The tension interferes with the physiological process of birth and can create more pain.
If we are in an environment that makes us feel unsafe, even if logically we believe we should be safe, our ability to cope with contractions can be interrupted. Lights, noise and extra people can cause us to lose focus.
The use of artificial oxytocin (called Syntocinon in Australia and Pitocin in the US), the position we labour and give birth in, baby's position and our labour support people can all impact how we feel contractions.
What Is A Uterine Contraction?
During pregnancy our cervix, the opening to the uterus, remains a bit hard, thick and closed. As our body gears up for labour the cervix begins to soften and efface (thin out). The cervix doesn't simply widen. It opens when the uterus begins to pull upwards.
A contraction is the tightening and shortening of your uterine muscles. This causes the cervix to open up as the uterus pulls upward. It also pushes the baby down into the birth canal.
Have I Ever Experienced Anything Like It?
If you experienced menstrual cramps it might feel like a similar sensation, but more intense. It might also feel similar to a muscle spasm. Unlike cramps or muscles spasms, labour contractions are often patterned. You aren't experiencing them constantly.
You have a sensation that grows in intensity, peaks, slows in intensity and then is over until another contraction begins. Active labour contractions last around 60-90 seconds and come anywhere from every 2-5 minutes. Of course every labour is unique and some never experience this pattern.
Some women feel little to no pain or pressure in their bellies but feel a lot of lower back pain. This is known as back labour. This is sometimes due to less than optimal fetal positioning. If you're prone to back pain, it might feel similar to other times you've experienced pain but a different intensity. Many describe back labour as very intense and requiring a lot of focusing and support.
What Can I Do To Prepare For Contractions?
It is impossible to know exactly how your contractions will feel until labour but it doesn't mean you can't be prepared for them. Taking time to prepare for labour can help you have a more positive experience.
Taking an independent childbirth education class can be extremely helpful. Learning about what to expect, what is normal and about the birth process can help eliminate the fear of the unknown.
Remaining physically active before and during pregnancy is very helpful. Our current Western lifestyle isn't quite as active as previous lifestyles. This means we might not be used to physically exerting ourselves. Labour requires stamina, as it is aptly named labour it can be a bit of work. Being used to physical activity with a specific goal (like an athlete would), can help us be prepared for contractions.
Consider hiring a doula. Continuous labour support, like that of a trained doula, is linked to lower medicinal pain use and interventions. If women are asking for less pain medication while being supported, we can assume having a doula can impact how a woman feels her contractions.
Care provider choice, paying attention to baby's positioning and making an informed decision regarding birthing location can also impact how you feel contractions.
So, What Do Contractions Feel Like?
We asked experienced mamas to share how contractions felt to them. Each mama described them differently, showing that each birth is truly unique.
Rebecca's Experience of Contractions
“Just having had a baby one month ago and a homebirth, I would say it was more like a wave of pressure that would start out where you would immediately know that it was coming and then it would peak at a point of feeling like something was tightly being wrapped around my belly and at the same time pulling it down. Then the wave would release from the bottom and move up, releasing my belly.
During transition, the contraction felt like continuous waves of pressure one on top of another with only small breaks. During this time I was chanting “open” slowly to help keep my body relaxed and be open to the continuous waves of tightening and feeling of the baby moving down as well as opening the cervix.”
Chasidy's Experience of Contractions
“My induction with my first was very painful and all back labour and I was too out of it to deal. My second, I was in labour all night and didn't recognize it as labour because I could only feel the contractions from the outside.
My stomach got hard to the touch and they weren't following any pattern or painful or even remotely distracting. In the morning, I had some bloody show and went to the bathroom and they got a lot more intense, but never painful. It wasn't as bad as diarrhea cramps and was more similar to some of the more uncomfortable period cramps.
I stayed relaxed and tried to relax my pelvic floor during contractions and they finally got more intense as I entered and flew through transition (10 minutes). I could barely feel them in the hot water from the tub (we cooled it before she came out).”
Dorie Ann's Experience of Concentrations
“It was like my uterus was a giant tube of toothpaste. A tightening or squeezing sensation would start at the top and move downward, increasing in intensity and duration. As it would end, it would leave me feeling overwhelmed by touch.”
Johanna's Experience of Contractions
“Contractions started as a pressure. At first it was just enough to take my breath away. Then they were strong enough to make me stop what I was doing, forcing me to focus. Though I had three very different birthing experiences, in all cases I was induced due to preeclampsia.
Until my water was broken, I do not recall feeling pain, if it was there the intense muscle contractions out shadowed it. But not feeling pain does not mean it was easy. Imagine standing in a deep squat, bearing weight upon your shoulders. Even as your legs are shaking and ready to give out, more weight is added. Eventually those muscles tire, but there is little relief. When my water was broken, I felt some pain too. It was intense – a word that cannot be overused to describe labour – but a different sort of pain. It was pain and pressure, radiating from the inside.”
What Did Contractions Feel Like For You?
Feel free to share your description in the comments below!