Contractions – Everything You Need To Know

Contractions - Everything You Need To Know

If you’re pregnant you’re probably doing quite a bit of thinking about contractions.

After all, they’re a pretty significant part of birth.

For many women, they’re one of the most feared aspects of labour.

And you probably have a million questions about contractions.

Contractions – Everything You Need To Know

You’ve also probably heard all sorts of stories about contractions.

For example, how one friend was in labour for three days.

Another had contractions on top of one another (whatever that means).

And your best friend said she just breathed through hers.

Contractions are taking up a lot of your head space right now.

So to put your mind at ease we’ve covered everything you need to know about labour contractions.

What Are Contractions?

Contractions are nature’s way of starting labour and 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.

During labour, however, 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 opens or dilates.

This is what we call a labour contraction.

When the cervix is fully open, the outer layer of muscle fibres has bunched to the top of the uterus.

When the pushing stage of labour begins, these bunched up muscles contract down on the baby, pushing him or her out through the vagina.

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What Are Braxton Hicks?

From around week 7 of pregnancy your uterus practises for real labour.

These pregnancy contractions are called Braxton Hicks.

As your pregnancy progresses, you will be able to feel, and even see, the effect of these practice contractions.

The outer layer of muscles will contract and relax, but the muscles won’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.

What Do Contractions Feel Like?

This is the million dollar question. What do contractions feel like?

It’s a hard question to answer because how contractions feel depends so much on each individual woman.

There are many factors that influence how we feel pain. They include:

  • Cultural and religious beliefs
  • Developmental influences
  • Family and genetic factors
  • Birth stories
  • Previous experiences of pain and how we were supported
  • Expectations
  • Influence of our support people.

For the most part, early contractions start off feeling similar to mild menstrual cramps.

As contractions become stronger and more regular, the sensation is often described as feeling like very strong period pain.

Where Will I Feel Contractions?

Most first time mamas have no reference point as to where they will feel contractions.

In early labour, mild contractions can feel just like the backache and crampiness of period pain.

Your lower abdomen and back might feel heavy and achy.

As labour 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 it be focused in your thighs.

Sometimes women feel a heavy aching in their vagina and labia.

Other women experience what’s known as back labour, when they feel contractions in the back.

Labour Contractions or Braxton Hicks?

One of the most common questions first time mamas ask is this: How will I know the difference between real labour 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.

With Braxton Hicks there is no contraction pain, but they can get quite uncomfortable. This is especially true when you’re in the later part of your pregnancy, when baby is taking up more space.

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.

Should I Time My Contractions?

It’s a good idea to keep track of contractions every so often in the early stages of labour.

In early labour, 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 you’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 labour can last some time, and contractions can be quite irregular and vary in length.

Read How Long Do Contractions Last? for more information.

What Does It Mean When I Have Contractions 10 Minutes Apart?

Regular labour contractions 10 minutes apart is a good sign labour is establishing and you will be meeting your baby soon.

Around this time it’s a good idea to call your hospital or midwife.

You will be asked a few questions about how you’re feeling and about your baby’s movements.

If you’re happy and comfortable where you are, and all is well, they will likely encourage you to stay there for a little longer.

When Should I Go To Hospital?

Most pregnant women worry about getting to the hospital too early or too late.

Care providers usually recommend you don’t come into hospital too early.

You’re likely to be more comfortable at home, where you aren’t disturbed by the hospital environment.

If you wait until you are closer to birth, you are more likely to settle back into the necessary headspace after the disruption of driving and checking into hospital.

But arriving too late can mean giving birth in the car, on the side of the road, or in the hospital car park.

And while this isn’t necessarily bad, if you’re not prepared for giving birth without support it can be a shock.

It’s important to find that 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 leave to go to hospital depends on a few things, such as:

  • Distance from home to hospital
  • Traffic likely to affect your progress
  • Availability of carers for other children
  • Ability to have contractions in a static position.

The rule of thumb is usually 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 into hospital
  • You are preterm, pregnant with multiples, or are high risk.

Always call the hospital to let them know you’re on your way.

What Has Happened To My Labour 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 labour contractions for several hours at night, only to wake up the next morning and realise they’ve disappeared.

Prelabour, also known as prodromal labour, is pretty famous for getting your hopes up only to dash them on the floor.

Read more in 7 Reasons Why Pre-Labour Sucks.

However, when labour has established and is considered active, if labour contractions are slowing down or have stopped, it’s referred to as a stalled labour.

Why Do Contractions Stall Or Stop?

There is a number of reasons why labour slows down or stops. Usually stalled labour can be addressed without having to resort to intervention.

Labour 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 which enabled one of two things to happen.

Either the baby was born much faster or the mother’s labour 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 Labour – What Is It And Why Have One?

What happens When Labour Stalls?

The birth environment and the people in it have a profound impact on labour and birth.

It’s well researched and well known, yet rarely taken into account when women go into hospital to give birth and their labour stalls.

In hospital a stalled labour is something that needs to be corrected.

This is usually done with interventions, such as artificial oxytocin to get contractions going again, breaking the amniotic sac, or even a c-section.

Most care providers don’t look at the individual woman or take into account the physical and emotional stressors contributing to her contractions slowing down or stopping.

A stalled labour can cause distress and concern, especially if you’re being pressured to have interventions.

Being informed about what could be contributing to this stall and what you can do to change it, can empower you to avoid a cascade of interventions.

Be sure to read 8 Natural & Effective Tips For a Slow Or Stalled Labour for more information.

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Sam McCulloch Dip CBEd CONTRIBUTOR

Sam McCulloch enjoyed talking so much about birth she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she writes novels. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.


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