Wondering what do labor contractions feel like? Are your contractions labor contractions or Braxton Hicks? When should you start timing labor contractions? How long do labor contractions last? What can you do during contractions?
As your labor and delivery draw closer and closer, the Braxton Hicks will eventually fade away and real labor contractions will start! AH! It’s so exciting, soon your pregnancy will end and your baby will be placed into your arms for the first time. While it’s so exciting, it can also be a little nerve-wracking. After all, our society doesn’t always give birth or contractions the best rep.
In this post, I’ll answer your questions about labor contractions so you are prepared when the BIG DAY arrives!
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What Are Labor Contractions?
Contractions are when your uterus tightens and releases in order to dilate and efface the cervix during your labor and delivery. After all, the uterus is a muscle!
Basically, your uterine muscles in your stomach tighten or grow shorter during each contraction. This pulls on the cervix and that, along with baby’s head pressure, are what cause the cervix to thin and open. This is the beautiful process of birth in action!
What Do Labor Contractions Feel Like?
So, now that we know exactly what contractions are, we need to answer the question, “What do labor contractions feel like?” This is what we all want to know before labor begins. As your labor progresses, your contractions may actually start to feel differently than your early labor contractions! In addition, many women describe their contractions differently so it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what your labor contractions are going to feel like.
In early labor, your labor contractions are going to feel like tightening. You may feel your stomach getting “hard” or feeling like it’s in a knot. In addition, you may also feel some menstrual type cramps that wrap around into your lower back.
As you progress into active labor, your labor contractions are going to grow closer together, grow longer and grow in intensity. This is those uterine muscles working hard to open your cervix in order for you to give birth. Every single contraction gets you closer and closer to your baby’s birth.
What do labor contractions feel like in active labor and transition? These are always the contractions pictured in every Hollywood movie. These contractions are going to be intense menstrual cramps that you’ll feel throughout your entire abdomen and into your lower back. As you get closer and closer to 10 cm dilated, you will also start to feel lots of vaginal pressure as your baby is beginning to descend further down, getting ready for birth!
Some women describe this as feeling like you are going to have a huge bowel movement. This is because your baby’s head is going to be very close to the rectum and the same muscles used to eliminate your bowels, are also being used to push your baby out!
While these labor contractions towards the end of your labor and delivery are strong and intense, it also means you are almost done and baby is almost here!
How to Tell Labor Contractions from Braxton Hicks?
This can be difficult especially at the beginning. Basically time will tell!
Braxton Hicks are basically practice contractions (watch a video on Braxton Hicks here). These contractions shouldn’t really be painful and won’t resemble true labor contractions in several ways. Knowing these differences will really help you to tell the difference as you approach your due date.
Labor Contractions Will:
- Grow closer together
- Grow in length
- Increase in intensity
- Not go away after rest and water
While on the other hand…
Braxton Hicks Contractions:
- Are Irregular
- Won’t grow closer together
- Won’t increase in intensity
- Will go away after peeing, drinking water, resting or going on a light walk
These contractions aren’t causing dilation, though they may help to soften the cervix. These contractions are very normal to experience and almost every woman feels them at some point in pregnancy. Although, many first time moms say they didn’t feel them or didn’t until they were very close to their due date. Braxton Hicks are safe for you and your baby and there is no need to call your doctor if you are having true Braxton Hicks.
In order to help you tell the difference, Braxton Hicks can be triggered by sex, a full bladder, dehydration, over-exertion, and certain positions. If you are trying to ward off Braxton Hicks or tell the difference between them and true labor contractions, try drinking a lot of water, resting, going for a light walk and peeing.
When Should You Start Timing Labor Contractions?
There is no “right answer” here. Basically, if you are starting to think this may be the real deal it’s time to start timing. This can give you an idea of how quickly you are progressing and help you decide when it’s time to go to the hospital or birth center!
If you are beginning to show signs of labor, timing your contractions will be the best way to tell if true labor is actually here!
In order to time your contractions and identify real labor contractions, pay attention to how often they are coming, how intense they are and if they are getting stronger. If you are getting your contractions on what seems like a regular basis, it’s a good time to start timing.
In order to time your contractions, you can simply use a stopwatch on your phone and a paper to record the times. Or, there are also lots of contraction timing free apps you can download on your phone! Technology these days, I tell ya, is making all of this so easy for us! Contraction Master is a great app for iPhone or Android, Full Term is a very simple app for iPhone, and Contraction Timer App is another great choice for Android.
What about Back Labor Contractions?
Back labor is definitely not a fun thing to experience! Actually, my personal back labor story…I ended up having back labor with my second labor and delivery. This was due to my baby facing up instead of down. Turns out, your baby’s position plays a huge role in how your contractions feel (source).
Since the baby is facing your abdomen instead of your back, this position (occiput posterior) can cause the baby’s head to put pressure on your tailbone causing the back labor contractions.
Back labor usually worsens during each contraction but usually doesn’t fully go away in between contractions either. The best way to prevent and treat back labor is to get baby in the optimal birthing position.
Almost every woman describes her labor contractions to include some lower back pain but you’ll be able to tell if you are experiencing true back labor contractions. This is why having a doula, is so important for your birth. Your doula will have the tools and knowledge needed to help your body get through back labor and help the baby turn.
What if You Are Having Prodromal Labor?
Prodromal labor is basically more regular and intense contractions than Braxton Hicks but not intense enough to bring on actual labor. Unfortunately, this prodromal labor can do on for weeks or even months before true labor actually begins (source).
The difference between prodromal labor and true labor is subtle so many women can take the trip to the hospital, only to be sent back home. The difference is that while the contractions may be consistent, prodromal contractions will not grow in intensity or grow closer together as true labor contractions will.
When Should You Call Your Doula?
You should call your doula as soon as you are having regular, consistent labor-like contractions. While she may not head straight to your house, it is good to keep her informed and give her a heads up. Not to mention, she will be able to coach you through laboring techniques to help labor to progress well.
When Should You Call Your Doctor/Midwife?
If you are having any concerns at all, you can always call your doctor or midwife at any time. The best time to call him/her would be when you are having consistent contractions, for an hour or longer!
When Should You Go to the Hospital or Birth Center?
The most common and easy rule-of-thumb when deciding when to go to the hospital is the 4-1-1 rule.
This means you should head to the hospital when your contractions are 4 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute or longer, for an hour-long. However, if you are progressing quickly, make your own judgment call, depending on how far away the hospital or birth center is and how intense labor is becoming!
If this isn’t your first delivery, you may want to head to the hospital when contractions are a little further apart as subsequent births tend to go a good amount faster than your first labor and delivery. I know with my second labor, my contractions went from 10 minutes apart to less than 5 minutes apart in about an hour and were growing in intensity quickly. Luckily we headed around 4 minutes apart and had barely an hour in the delivery room before I gave birth!
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How Long Do Contractions Last?
Your labor contractions will slowly increase in length as labor progresses. These are the general timelines for labor as it progresses into each stage!
- Generally, early labor will last anywhere from 8-12 hours (less for subsequent pregnancies)
- Contractions will be approximately 30-45 seconds long
- Contractions anywhere between 10-30 minutes apart
- Generally, this stage of labor will last anywhere between 2-4 hours
- Contractions will be approximately 45 seconds- 1 minute in length
- Contractions anywhere between 2-5 minutes apart
This is the most intense part of labor but it is also the shortest!
- Generally, transition will last anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours in length
- These contractions will last anywhere from 60-90 seconds
- Contractions will only be about 30 second- 2 minutes apart
What Can You Do for Relief During Labor Contractions?
No one ever thinks labor contractions will be a walk in the park, they definitely become painful. The good news is, the pain is bringing about something amazing, the birth of your baby! Plus, it is so important to remember you get breaks in between every contraction! While you have access to pain medications to manage pain in labor at a hospital, its important to know what other ways you can manage pain. Whether you are wanting a natural birth or just need to manage labor pains until you decide to receive pain narcotics, there are ways you can naturally manage pain.
Favorite Ways to Manage Labor Contractions Naturally:
- Position changes, birthing ball, and a peanut ball are great options to help labor to progress well and manage pain
- Massage and pressure can be a very effective way to naturally manage labor pains
- Breathing, meditation, prayer can all be very effective ways to go quiet, get in tune with what your body is doing and find natural pain relief
- Believing in yourself and your body is an amazing way to manage labor pains by understanding what the pain is for and that baby is coming soon!
Ok, there you have it. Hopefully you found the answer to “what do labor contractions feel like?” By knowing more about your labor and delivery and your labor contractions, you will be better prepare for your upcoming birth. Congratulations, mama!
How would you describe your contractions? For first time moms, do you feel better prepared for your labor by knowing what labor contractions feel like? Tell us below in the comments!
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