What Do Contractions Feel Like?

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

“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.”

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What Did Contractions Feel Like For You?

Feel free to share your description in the comments below!

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Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.

  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. like an iron fist grinding the inside of your tummy, I didn’t have any support or much in the way of pain relief (2 codeine) but if your in the UK I’d recommend Daisy birthing classes, the only technique I had to rely on, the breathing really worked for me

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. I totally disagree there shouldn’t be a fear of birth and that statement creates a fear of birth. There are many techniques to help make it easier and less painful. Such as hypnobirthing, meditation and certain breathing techniques.
      There is such a culture of fear around birth and it needs to stop. Yes it’s painful but we were made to deal with it and we can! I think it’s wonderful
      this article shared some very positive birth stories there needs to be more out there!

      1. Nicely said Amy!

        Yes birthing a baby is painful but the sooner we can move away from our over reliance on often unnecessary medical intervention and unhelpful scare stories (because each birth experience truly is a different experience) the better. I haven’t used hypnobirthing in my previous pregnancies, but am expecting my fourth little one in a couple of weeks and am finding it invaluable so far. In fact I highly recommend The natal hypnotherapy birth preparation book an CD’s by Maggie Howell. Gives a new perspective on birth, makes perfect sense and I wish I’d had this to hand the 1st 3 times.

    2. I agree with brenda. I read the accounts supplied. . All I felt was pressure… it didn’t really hurt.. really??? It is better to set realistic expectations for first time mums so they don’t get disappointed should they, like millions of women, suffer pain to bring life. And then feel ashamed or like a failure because they didn’t handle the pain like these rare women and didn’t have that zen like delivery.

  6. My water broke 3:30 am and I didn’t start contracting normally till like 5 pm that day. When I got to be a 7-8 I literally could not control my mouth I just screamed. I felt like someone was stabbing my butt with a knife and then it was horrible to push too. Even after I had my daughter I was in pain and I shook alot but I lost alot of blood due to anemia. And I couldn’t stay awake in the hospital either but I would do it all over again just hope I get a boy since I have 3 daughters already!

  7. 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.

  8. I remember both my sister and a friend saying “You will know you are in real labour when it feels like all of your insides are being pulled out of your belly button.” That’s exactly what it felt like for me. I didn’t have back labour but feeling like my insides were being pulled out, excruciating. I kept telling my husband “I’m going to die. I feel like I’m going to die.” Lol. Thankfully, I got an epidural after 6 hours of intense labour like this, gradually getting worse. By the time they had the epidural ready for me, my contractions were lasting 2 minutes and were 30 seconds apart. Best decision ever. Either way you get through it. You have to! I had a great coach, my husband kept reminding me to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, that beautiful baby boy! 🙂

  9. I just remember discomfort and pressure, I had an 8 hour labor that was induced (I had planned a home birth but was transferred to hospital after an ultrasound revealed I had no fluid left) and I was amazed at how the body deals. I labored on my knees and would kneel over a pile of pillows each contraction. I would fall asleep in between and pushing felt amazing. She was fully effaced when I was only 5 cm so I had the urge to push for 5 hours! My labor was nothing like I imagined and I never felt the need for pain meds!

  10. Contractions were a dull, focused purposeful pain. as long as I walked or stood they seemed to work perfectly to open and expel my baby. They were much easier to handle in an upright position.
    Although they were not walk in the park I jet visualized my baby moving down and out with each one.
    The on again off again way contractions come and go is wonderful. Allowing you to rest and relax and prepare for the next movement! The most purposeful pain I’ve experienced in my life. (4 beautiful births )

  11. In all honesty, at first I couldn’t tell if I was getting really bad constipation pain or going into labour… After 2 hours of the cramps going and returning, rocking on the floor over a pillow I realised it was probably time to wake up my oh. Had a beautiful home birth, worth every single second.

  12. I’ve given birth 3 times and each labour was very different. My first came 3 weeks before my due date. I think I was in shock. I lost the mucus plug at about 2am and within an hour my contractions were 5 minutes apart and quite strong. We drove to the hospital at about 4am. Not long after I was admitted, I started to vomit with each contraction. My cervix was only about 1 cm dilated. After a while I was becoming dehydrated and exhausted. I was given a drip and an injection of pethidine and slept through the rest of the morning. My son was born just after 2pm. I had a rather large episiotomy which was sore for months.

    With my second pregnancy I decided to give birth at home. I had a wonderful doctor and a midwife. I went to a country show on the Wednesday and did a lot of walking around the exhibits. My belly felt a bit achy all day. By about 9pm I thought I was in labour so I called my doctor. He came and sat with me all night (such a dear man!). My husband stayed in bed because he had a cold 😉 . By morning, my labour stopped so the doctor went home to have a rest. I tried to stay active. I walked around the block and cooked and did some tidying up. By early afternoon, the contractions resumed and became much stronger. I can remember watching Play School with my son and trying to breath through the pain and not look distressed. The doctor and the midwife arrived. The rest of the evening was certainly hard labour and quite painful. My second son was born at 11.45pm. I had a slight tear. My baby was wide awake and we gave him a gentle bath which he seemed to love.

    My last labour was wonderful. I had just finished cleaning up after my first son’s 6th birthday party. I felt the contractions start. They were just tightenings. I could feel my belly harden with each one. I decided to labour by myself in the lounge room. I made a cosy nest for with a foam mattress and lots of big cushions and held a hot water bottle against my belly. I was able to breath through each contraction easily. They were definitely not painful and I slept on and off until about 3.30am. At this stage the contractions were closer together and stronger but certainly not painful. My husband called the midwife and doctor and they arrived a short time later. I was almost fully dilated. I can remember telling everyone that I was enjoying the labour due to the lack of pain. The only part that hurt was when my midwife massaged and stretched my perineum just before my baby’s head was born. This pain was certainly worth it though – not having an injured pelvic floor was just wonderful!

  13. After been induced my waters brook within 4 hours, I had not even left hospital as I was visiting my brother who just had a baby!
    Contractions started quickly after getting into a birthing room, 1min apart and lasting for just over 1min, my baby was back to back so all my pain was in my back, the pain was like massive waves of electric fence shock all on my lower back, I wasn’t getting much of a break in between contactions, after 7 hours I gave up and had a eppdural, endd in a emergency C section after another 10 hours. I would do it again in a heart beat if I’m blessed with another healthy beautiful baby

  14. I was induced 3 weeks early due to severe pre clampsia. I was in labor for 12 hours without any pain meds whatsoever. They say contractions are stronger when you get induced. Honestly it wasn’t that bad. Pain was bareable, never took a breathing pregnancy class but i knew i had to stay calm and just breathe through every contraction. They felt like menstrual cramps X10. Every contraction came with middle and lower back pain. I just had my husband rub my lower back hard and everything was good to go! My son was born via emergency c-section because I couldn’t dialate and baby’s heartbeat was dropping and I couldn’t stop throwing up. I would honestly do it all over again just not the csection. Baby was born 5 months ago and it still hurts. 🙁

  15. My contractions were extremely painful from the get go. I was included due to low amniotic fluid and gestational high BP at 38 weeks with my first. The first contraction was as painful and intense as the later ones and I’d be lucky if I was getting a minute break in between. I actually found the pushing part a relief as the intensity seemed to drop off a bit. The one good thing is that it made for a very quick labour and delivery, under 3 hours start to finish. I’m currently 37+4 with my second so it will be interesting to see the difference this time as not really sure what early labour feels like. Just hoping to stay clear of an induction this time!

  16. hi, i know im sound being wired. i had tingle electric shock last night while i was a sleeping n got feeling shocking on my tummy.. i did do pregnant test this morning,, n it negative. i must took it too early. my period due is on 26th this month n my last due was 2nd n my last sex was on 4th this month. i dont feel any symptom just a breast n my nipple have fews like puffy on my nipple n i have blues veins cross over my chest n breast, sometime it on and goes again.this afternoon i had fews shock on my tummy while i was set down. i know ir sound too early or any ideal!? please help? hope someone can write bk to me in very soon.

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