Are you a mama-to-be with a baby not far away? If so, you probably really want to know the answer to what do contractions feel like?
If you’ve already asked mothers what contractions feel like, chances are they’ve said things like ‘intense’, ‘painful’, and perhaps ‘amazing’.
The way women describe the feeling of contractions can vary greatly.
However, hearing responses like these, we aren’t really informed about what to expect.
Wondering what contractions feel like can bring up feelings of fear.
You may even be questioning if you’re going to be able to cope.
After all, birth is the biggest physical, emotional and psychological experience you’ll probably ever know.
Often when mamas-to-be ask new mothers, “How will I know that I’m having a contraction?”, the new mothers simply smile and say, “Oh, you’ll KNOW!”
I want to help you understand a bit more about what contractions feel like.
Would you like to know more about what can relieve the sensations of contractions, and what can make them worse?
Great! Read on.
What Do Contractions Feel Like?
Here are some answers to hopefully help you prepare for 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 who has done little birth preparation might find contractions overwhelming.
When feel fearful, this can create more pain. How?
Dr. Grantly Dick-Read explained this process as the fear-tension-pain cycle.
When we’re experiencing fear, we tense up.
Tension interferes with the physiological process of birth, and in turn can create more pain.
If we’re feeling unsafe in an environment, even if logically we believe we should be safe, our ability to cope with contractions can be interrupted.
Lights, noise, fear and extra people can cause us to lose focus – the labour may even stall.
Interference stops us from operating from our brain stem (the best place for birth, breathing and other important functions) and engages our ‘thinking brain’ at the front of our head. This is least optimal for birthing.
All of these things can impact how we experience labour contractions:
- The use of artificial labour hormones for inductions (called Syntocinon in Australia and Pitocin in the US) can make labour more painful
- The position we labour and give birth in – lying flat on your back or reclining is more painful than being upright
- Baby’s position in the womb – if baby is posterior, his or her back will be aligned against your back, causing added labour pain
- The labour support team – e.g. doula, hospital staff, partner, family members etc.
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 Contractions?
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 often due to positioning of the baby, but it also may be the position of your placenta, or the shape of your pelvis.
If you’re prone to back pain, it might feel similar to other times you’ve experienced back pain, but a different intensity.
Many describe back labour as very intense and requiring a lot of focus and support.
Optimal fetal positioning may help you avoid back labour, which tends to be longer and more painful than regular labour.
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.
Mothers Experiences: What Do Contractions Feel Like?
We asked experienced mamas, what do contractions feel like? As you will read, every mother described contractions differently. Every birth experience 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!