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What Do Contractions Feel Like? What You Need to Know About Labor Pains

Pregnant woman suffering lower back pain. Woman getting a contraction and backache at home in the living room. Concept of pregnancy, maternity, health care, gynecology, medicine.

by Lisa Prosser

Travel with Kids Expert

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One of the biggest questions for many first-time expecting moms is, what do contractions actually feel like? What can you really expect, and how bad will labor truly be? The answer? Honestly, as with so many things baby-related, it depends! But there are a few general things you should know about labor that can help you prepare for the big day. Here are a few tips and insights on what you need to know about contractions and labor pain. What Do Contractions and Labor Pain Feel Like? During a labor contraction, your uterus is – well, contracting! You may see your belly physically tighten and move as your uterine muscles contract and start the process of… Read More

One of the biggest questions for many first-time expecting moms is, what do contractions actually feel like? What can you really expect, and how bad will labor truly be?

The answer? Honestly, as with so many things baby-related, it depends! But there are a few general things you should know about labor that can help you prepare for the big day. Here are a few tips and insights on what you need to know about contractions and labor pain.

What Do Contractions and Labor Pain Feel Like?

During a labor contraction, your uterus is – well, contracting! You may see your belly physically tighten and move as your uterine muscles contract and start the process of pushing your baby down.

So what does it feel like? Labor contractions, particularly in the earlier stages of labor, can feel a lot like very heavy period cramps. You’ll typically feel waves of pain in your lower abdomen, lower back, or all throughout your stomach. As labor progresses, the contractions will become longer and stronger, to the point where they’ll likely take your breath away, make it difficult to talk, and/or difficult to walk or move around.

Some moms also experience back labor, where the pain is more focused in the lower back. Back labor is typically caused by the position of your baby and can be a bit more painful since the pain may continue even in between contractions.

What Are the Different Stages of Labor?

You can expect contractions to intensify as you go through each stage of labor. So what exactly are the different labor stages?

First up is early labor. In this stage, your cervix is just starting to dilate and thin out or efface. Early labor can last for days or hours, so it’s hard to gauge exactly how you’ll be feeling throughout. Generally though, during very early labor, contractions will be fairly mild, and you may experience more of an ache or pain similar to menstrual cramps. As early labor really starts to progress, the contractions should become more regular, much stronger than typical cramps, and painful in your back and the front of your belly.

The next stage, active labor, is when things start to feel very real. The pain intensifies, and your contractions should become longer and more regular — happening every 5 minutes or less — and each lasting for a minute or more. This is the stage when things really get moving and your cervix is dilating from 4cm to 10cm.

The last portion of active labor – transition – is what many women will describe as the most intense part of labor. Contractions are very close together. They can feel as though they are constantly rolling from one to the next without much of a break. Thankfully, transition is a relatively short phase, normally lasting 15 minutes to an hour.

What’s the Best Way to Cope with Labor Pains?

There are tons of effective tips for managing labor pain, particularly during active labor. Changing positions, using breathing techniques, or getting in the shower or bath are just some options.

If you think you want to have an unmedicated birth – or even if you don’t – it’s great to do research beforehand on different methods for coping with the pain. If you opt to go with medication, an epidural is the most common method of pain relief used during childbirth. Epidurals can potentially slow down your labor though, so many moms will try to wait before getting their epidural.

After a 30+ hour labor with my first baby, coupled with a very early epidural that didn’t work very well and slowed down my labor, I knew I wanted to wait as long as possible the second time around. With baby #2, I waited until my contractions were fairly intense – about 4 minutes apart – before going to the hospital. This helped me be able to both labor at home as I wanted, and avoid getting an epidural “too early” (for me!), since the option simply wasn’t available at home.

How Do You Know When You’re Actually in Labor?

Now you know how contractions will most likely feel. But if you are a first-time mom, and especially if you’ve been experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, you may still be a little nervous about how you’ll know you are in labor. Are you calling it right and are experiencing real contractions, or is it a false alarm?

Braxton Hicks contractions can fool a lot of new moms into thinking they’re in labor. But there are a few key distinctions between those contractions and real labor contractions. Braxton Hicks tend to be irregular, varying in intensity level, and may happen for a few hours one day, and then stop for a day or two. They also tend to be more uncomfortable than painful. The last point is definitely subjective because we all have different levels of pain tolerance. But if you find yourself able to pretty much resume your day as normal, they’re probably Braxton Hicks.

The length and consistency of your contractions are also some of the biggest ways to help you determine when the labor pains are real. Your doctor or midwife will usually give you a guideline for when to call them, based on the timing of your contractions. Always confirm with them, but the general rule given for when to head to the hospital – or to at least know that labor is here – is when you reach 5-1-1. This means your contractions are 5 minutes apart, they each last for 1 minute, and this is a regular pattern over a period of 1 hour.

In the end, don’t worry too much! By the time labor progresses to the point where you really need to be at the hospital, birth center, or even at home prepping for your baby to arrive, the pain will be fairly intense, and you will know. And the ultimate reminder? At the end of this crazy experience, you’ll finally have your baby in your arms. The pain will (hopefully!) be a distant memory.