If you’re pregnant, you’re probably doing quite a bit of thinking about contractions –especially as your due date approaches.
After all, they’re a pretty significant part of birth.
For many women, they’re one of the most feared aspects of labor.
You’ve also probably heard all sorts of stories about contractions – for example, how one friend was in labor for three days.
And how your best friend described each contraction as a wave-like motion throughout her body. Or that another had contractions on top of one another (whatever that means).
Contractions are taking up a lot of your headspace right now.
False labor contractions, active labor, true labor, regular contractions, common contractions, other contractions …
What makes a contraction a contraction? What’s the real thing?
To put your mind at ease we’ve covered everything you need to know about contractions.
What are contractions?
Contractions are nature’s way of getting your baby from the inside to the outside.
The uterus is made up of two main layers of muscles.
The outer layer of muscles in your uterus is different from other muscles in your body.
For example, the muscles in your arm contract (shorten), and then return to the same size and shape when they relax.
In your uterus, the outer layer of muscles can also contract and relax.
However, during labor, instead of returning to the same size, these muscles stay shortened.
This shortening acts on the inner layer of muscle, which keeps the cervix closed during pregnancy.
As the outer layer of muscles begins to pull up, the inner layer of muscle relaxes and the cervix dilates.
You can read more in Dilation Of The Cervix – What You Need To Know.
This is what we call a labor contraction.
When the cervix is fully dilated, the outer layer of muscle fibers has bunched to the top of the uterus (fundus).
When the pushing stage of labor begins, these bunched-up uterine muscles contract down on the baby, pushing the baby out through the vagina.
Braxton Hicks contractions
A little-known fact is your uterus contracts at other times in your life: during your menstrual cycle, and even during pregnancy before labor actually begins.
Around midway through pregnancy, you might start to experience what’s known as Braxton Hicks. These are also called ‘false labor’ or ‘practice’ contractions, and they are essentially that – practicing for real labor.
These uterine contractions don’t act on the cervix to open it. The outer layer of muscles contracts and relaxes, but the uterine muscles doesn’t shorten. The inner layer of muscles keeps the cervix closed.
Your belly will tighten and harden, sometimes for a few minutes at a time, then stop. Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and painless because the outer layer of uterine muscle isn’t being shortened and the cervix isn’t dilating.
For more information please read Braxton Hicks Contractions – What Are They?
How do contractions feel when they first start?
This is the million-dollar question. What do regular active labor contractions feel like?
It’s a hard question to answer because how contractions feel depends so much on each individual woman.
Research shows labor pain is both physiological and psychological. There are many factors that influence how we feel pain.
Some of these are:
- Cultural and religious beliefs
- Developmental influences
- Family and genetic factors
- Birth stories
- Previous experiences of pain and how we were supported
- Influence of our support people.
For the most part, early contractions start off feeling similar to mild menstrual cramps.
As contractions become stronger, and happen at more regular intervals, they are often described as feeling like very strong period pain.
You might find What Do Contractions Feel Like? Our Best Explanation, Here! an interesting read.
Where will I feel contractions?
Most first-time mothers have no reference point as to where they will feel contractions.
In early labor, mild contractions can feel just like the backache and crampiness of period pain.
Your lower abdomen and back might feel heavy and achy.
Early labor needs more than contractions to progress to active labor. Sometimes, early labor does not progress to active labor and stops for a while. This is known as false labor.
As labor progresses, contractions become more powerful and intense.
As the uterus muscles tighten, you can feel this in your abdomen. Your belly might feel strange, almost rock hard.
You might feel pain low down in your abdomen, around the area of your pubic bone. The cervix is behind the pubic bone.
You might feel pain radiating up and across your belly, or focused in your thighs.
Sometimes women feel a heavy aching in the vagina and labia.
Sometimes women experience feeling contractions only on one side. Their bellies will be tight and hard only in one area. This is usually related to the baby moving around.
Other women experience what’s known as back labor, when they feel contractions in the back.
How do I know if I’m having contractions?
The most common questions first-time mamas ask are: How will I know when labor begins? How can I tell the difference between true labor contractions and Braxton Hicks?
Braxton Hicks come and go. They don’t have a regular pattern. They don’t get stronger or closer together, and they can stop if you move or empty your bladder.
Your belly will tighten and feel hard, like in a regular contraction.
Braxton Hicks contractions aren’t painful, but they can get quite uncomfortable. This is especially true in the latter part of your pregnancy when baby is taking up more space.
How far apart do contractions start?
In the early stages of labor, the contractions are often 15 to 20 minutes apart. They will generally last for 30-60 seconds.
As labor progresses, the time between contractions gets shorter and the contraction lasts longer.
Having regular contractions 10 minutes apart and 60-90 seconds long is a good sign labor has been established.
This is a good time to call your midwife or health care provider.
You will be asked a few questions about the process, how you’re feeling, and about your baby’s movements.
If you’re happy and comfortable where you are, and all is well, your midwife or doctor will probably encourage you to stay there a little longer.
When should I start timing contractions?
In the early stages of labor, it’s a good idea to keep track of contractions.
At this stage, most women can still walk and talk through contractions. They will only last 20-30 seconds and are barely a blip.
Others might not even be aware they’re having a contraction.
Every hour or so, record how long your contractions are and how far apart they are.
You do this by timing several contractions. How far apart they are is the number of minutes from the start of one contraction to the start of the next one.
This early stage of labor can last some time, and contractions can be quite irregular and vary in length.
Read How Long Do Contractions Last? for more information.
How regular are early labor contractions?
Nearly every pregnant woman experiences the mysterious affliction of having contractions that fizzle out, or even disappear, in the lead-up to the real event.
It’s frustrating and disappointing to have contractions for several hours at night, only to wake up the next morning and realize they’ve disappeared.
Prelabour, also known as prodromal or false labor, is pretty famous for getting your hopes up, only to dash them on the floor.
Read more in 7 Reasons Why Pre-Labor Sucks.
Is it normal for contractions to start and then stop?
There’s a number of reasons why labor slows down or stops. Usually stalled labor can be addressed without having to resort to intervention.
Labor involves a very primitive part of your brain. Imagine giving birth in the wild, in the distant past.
Mammals evolved to give birth quickly and safely. If a predator or danger came near, the primal brain would produce stress hormones, enabling one of two things to happen.
Either the baby would be born much faster or the mother’s labor would stall or stop, to allow time for her to move out of danger.
Move forward to today. The primal part of the brain still exists in human women.
They aren’t usually in danger from predators, but they often birth in places that are bright, noisy, and full of strange people.
You can read more in Undisturbed Labor – What Is It And Why Have One?.
Should I walk while having contractions?
During labor, the best thing is to listen to yourself. Your body knows best what’s needed at each stage.
If you’re in early labor and have some uterine activity, try not to think about what you should or shouldn’t do. Listen to yourself.
Is your body telling you to walk when you’re contracting? Is it telling you to move about and stop during the contractions? Is it telling you to rest?
Changing positions is good during labor but if something works for you, keep doing it. Whether it is resting or moving, you will know when it’s time to change positions.
For more ideas, please read Early Labour – 8 Tips For A Low Stress Early Labour At Home.
Does lying down stop labor?
As you know, there are different stages of labor and your body will speak to you throughout the process, as it usually does.
In the prelabor stage, your body starts the process gently and slowly. You might have a long night of irregular tightenings that don’t let you rest properly but fade away as the day begins. You’ll be tired and just want to lie down.
Lying down at this point won’t stop labor. It will allow you to get some much-needed rest. Active labor is so close.
During active labor, lying down might be very uncomfortable. Your body is telling you it isn’t a productive position for labor.
Check out Optimal Fetal Positioning – How To Make Birth Easier for information about positions during labor and birth.
Lying down has been linked to an increase in birth interventions simply because women’s bodies aren’t designed to give birth uphill.
If you must rest, try to do so in an upright position, such as on a birth ball, or leaning over the back of a bed or chair.
Lying down on your side is a neutral gravity position and can keep weight off your tailbone. But try to avoid long periods of rest in a lying-down position.
You can read more in Giving Birth Upright – 9 Huge Benefits.
What positions help contractions?
The best positions to help with contractions are those your body tells you to adopt – where you’re more comfortable and the pain is less. They are usually upright positions.
As uterine surges increase, and during the second stage, your body will respond to the different messages it receives. Tuning into your intuition is important. More pain? then move this way or make this sound.
That’s why women move, dance, sing, shake their pelvises, and so on while in labor. It’s to help their bodies, and help contractions push the baby out.
When should I go into hospital with contractions?
Most pregnant women worry about getting to the hospital too early or too late after labor starts.
It’s recommended you don’t go to the hospital too early, as this can disturb the labor process.
If you wait until you’re closer to birth, you’ll settle back into the necessary headspace after the disruption of driving and checking into hospital.
Arriving too late, though, could mean giving birth in the car, on the side of the road, or in the hospital car park.
This isn’t necessarily bad, but if you’re not prepared for giving birth without support it can be a shock.
It’s important to find the sweet spot between too early and too late – unless you decide to give birth at home and have a midwife come to you.
Working out when to go to hospital depends on:
- Distance from home to hospital
- Traffic is likely to affect your progress
- Availability of carers for other children
- Your ability to have contractions in a static position.
The rule of thumb is to leave for hospital when:
- Contractions are 5 minutes apart, 1 minute long, for 1 hour
- You are no longer comfortable at home and want to head to hospital
- You are preterm, pregnant with multiples, or high risk.
Always call the hospital to let them know you’re on your way.
Read more in 7 Signs That Labor Is 24 To 48 Hours Away.
You must always contact your healthcare provider if you feel contractions before 37 weeks of pregnancy; this might indicate preterm labor.
Watch for other signs such as a dull ache, vaginal bleeding, or your water breaks. If preterm labor is suspected, your doctor or midwife will provide medical advice on what prompt action is needed to avoid preterm birth.
You can read more in Premature Labour – Signs, Symptoms and Management.