What Do Contractions Feel Like?
There could be several times during pregnancy when you feel contractions or cramps and wonder: Is this it? Am I going into labor? Sometimes it can be difficult to tell, even for your healthcare provider. Here, we describe what contractions can feel like, and how Braxton Hicks practice contractions might feel compared to the real deal — those contractions that are a part of the early stages of labor. We’ll also provide some tips on how to manage the pain, and when to contact your provider. Plus, we’ve asked some moms to share what contractions felt like for them; read on to find out what they told us.
The Different Names for Contractions
You might hear these terms used for different types of contractions. Here's a brief rundown of what they mean:
Braxton Hicks contractions. Contractions that come and go, and don't result in you actually going into labor, are called Braxton Hicks contractions. You might also hear them referred to as false contractions or practice contractions.
True labor contractions. These are the kind that don't go away and end with the birth of your baby. They are also called real labor contractions.
Preterm contractions. If you experience true labor contractions before your pregnancy is full term, these can be called preterm contractions. The word preterm is used when labor starts before 37 weeks of pregnancy. If you experience any of the signs of preterm labor, or if you're in any doubt at all about what you're feeling, contact your healthcare provider for an assessment.
What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?
Braxton Hicks contractions can feel like very mild cramps or more intense pains. The pain of Braxton Hicks is usually felt at the front of the abdomen, and the intensity of these contractions may ebb and flow — for example, they could feel weaker, then stronger, then weaker again. As your due date nears, you might find that they feel stronger than they did earlier on in the second or third trimesters.
Practice contractions are normal and expected — they’re your body’s way of getting ready for what’s to come. They are more likely to occur toward the end of the day, after physical exertion, or after sex. If this isn’t your first pregnancy, you may find that Braxton Hicks contractions start a little earlier in the pregnancy than they did before.
To relieve the pain or discomfort of Braxton Hicks contractions, try walking around or changing positions. Resting may also help make them go away. Staying hydrated helps make Braxton Hicks contractions less likely to occur, so keep drinking plenty of water.
If you’re unsure about whether you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions or true labor contractions, contact your healthcare provider for advice.
What Do Real Labor Contractions Feel Like?
It’s difficult to predict or describe what real labor contractions will feel like for you. This is partly because everyone’s experience of pain is different. For you, early contractions may feel quite painless or mild, or they may feel very strong and intense. The pain you feel can also differ from one pregnancy to the next, so if you’ve been in labor before you might experience something quite different this time around. Typically, real labor contractions feel like a pain or pressure that starts in the back and moves to the front of your lower abdomen. Unlike the ebb and flow of Braxton Hicks, true labor contractions feel steadily more intense over time. During true labor contractions your belly will tighten and feel very hard. Some moms-to-be liken these contractions to menstrual cramps.
I only had them with my first as I opted for straight epidural, while being induced, the second time around. It was like my entire abdomen couldn’t get any tighter; it was like the worst period pain, times 100.
Mandy T. (Mom of Lola and Otis)
Unlike Braxton Hicks, true labor contractions come at regular intervals and get closer together in time. That’s why it can help to time your contractions with our handy contractions tracking chart. Look out for other early signs of labor too, like your water breaking.
Of course, if you’re in any doubt about what you’re experiencing, check with your healthcare provider. She will likely ask you some questions, and then advise you to either stay home and relax, to head in to the doctor’s office for a checkup, or to grab your hospital bag and get to the hospital for the birth of your baby.
To help manage the pain, you could try:
going for a walk
having a shower or warm bath
doing some of the relaxation techniques you may have learned at childbirth classes.
Other than the usual ‘hurts like hell,' I still remember being surprised by how hard and hot my bump felt during an actual contraction.
Renee M. (Mom of Oli and Saffy)
As your labor progresses, contractions can feel more painful, and you may also experience pressure in your lower back and rectum. It is a good idea to discuss options for comfort measures during labor with your healthcare provider ahead of time. For example, some moms-to-be choose pain medication like an epidural and others opt for non-medicated relief — or a combination of both. Pain management is a very personal process and choice; you might even change your mind about what you’d like as your labor progresses. Keep an open mind and have a discussion with your provider about what you might like to have and what’s available to you. What’s your take? Take our quiz on labor pain relief to tell us more!
What Other Moms (and One Dad!) Say Contractions Feel Like
We asked some parents to tell us what contractions felt like for them; here’s what they told us:
I didn’t expect to have all the pain in my spine! It was as if my spine was being twisted. Nothing major in my tummy.
Joanna M. (Mom of Bonnie)
My contractions would start with a slow hardening and gripping of my abdomen, then the pain would start. It felt like all of the organs in my midsection were being twisted and wrung out every few minutes.
Jill W. (Mom of Moira and Elle)
Is it bad that I sort of can’t remember? I think the trauma has been wiped from my mind. I just remember having to breathe A LOT to get through it. (Alongside some serious drugs of course.)
Amy D. (Mom of Evie)
The pain was like a wave. Straight up to a crest of insanely painful, and then an easing as the wave breaks and the contraction wears off. I was obviously delirious after a long labor to be visualizing waves.”
Liz E. (Mom of Phoebe)
I literally had to be told to breathe. So, for the next three births, I opted for the epidural at the start!
Jessy S. (Mom of Alexis, Reed, Hailey, and Simon)
From a man’s perspective, I can tell you they really hurt my hand!
Paul E. (Dad of Kaitlin and Robbie)
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
It's natural to feel nervous about what contractions will feel like and whether you'll know when labor has really begun. Remember, your healthcare provider is there to help you know when the time has come and what to do then. Plus, keep in mind that despite the pain and discomfort, Braxton Hicks contractions are helping your body prepare for labor, and true labor contractions are helping to dilate, soften and thin out (this thinning is called effacement) your cervix and push your baby further down into your pelvis. You've got this − it will all be worth it in the end when you're holding your newborn!
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