What Do Contractions Feel Like, Really?

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There’s a big learning curve when it comes to pregnancy. For many expecting parents, just thinking about contractions can be nerve-wracking because they are associated with pain and the start of labor. Plus, if you’re a first-time parent, you may be particularly overwhelmed, wondering what do contractions really feel like?

In reality, anyone who menstruates has actually already experienced contractions (or in other words, a tightening and releasing of the uterine muscles.) Yes, you read that right. Contractions don’t always refer the start of labor. Nor do contractions only occur when the body prepares for birth. Menstrual cramping is actually a form of contraction, says labor nurse Leisel Teen, BSN, RN and founder of Mommy Labor Nurse. “Uterine contractions are actually a normal part of a menstrual cycle – your uterus regularly contracts during your period. During labor, your uterus is undergoing the same mechanism it does with a period cramp, only a lot more intense.” says Teen.

Of course, there are some big differences in period cramping and the intensity of contractions that mark the start of labor. But for most people, preparing for birth won’t feel entirely foreign. POPSUGAR spoke to Teen about the most important things to know about contractions, including what do contractions feel like and how to spot other signs of labor.

What Are Contractions?

The uterus is a huge muscle that contracts and releases just like any other. Imagine flexing your bicep hard for a moment, feeling the tension in your arm, and relaxing. That motion – the tightening and releasing – is essentially what’s happening to the uterus during a contraction, says Teen.

During pregnancy, it’s possible to experience mild contractions that help “prepare” the body for future labor (these are called Braxton Hicks contractions, described ahead). But to be considered in “true” labor, Teen says “you must be experiencing cervical change” meaning the beginning of cervical dilatation, which allows the baby to pass through the vagina.

What Do Contractions Feel Like?

Contractions can feel different to everyone and different depending on where you are in the labor process,” says Teen. For many, “mild contractions feel like intermittent tightening of the abdomen or even like mild period cramps.”

However, as labor progresses and contractions intensify, many people report “sharp pain in their abdomen, back, and/or pelvic area in addition to the tightening,” adds Teen.

During labor, it’s common for people experiencing contractions to feel like they need to use the bathroom. “The words all labor and delivery nurses, weirdly, love to hear [is] ‘I feel like I need to poop,'” says Teen. At some point in the labor process – usually regardless of epidural use – there will be a sensation of pressure in the rectum. This happens because the baby begins to lower down into the pelvis, pushing on the bladder and rectum. When consistent and intense rectal pressure is present, it usually means it’s time (or almost time) to start pushing, says Teen.

Contractions are what helps push the baby down and through the vagina during birth. Constant rectal pressure, even between contractions, “is a really good sign that you are 10 centimeters [dilated], baby is super low, and it’s pushing time,” says Teen.

How Will I Know If I’m Having Contractions?

With mild contractions, it’s possible not to notice them at all, says Teen. But that’s not the case with stronger contractions – you will definitely feel them.

What’s more difficult to determine is whether contractions are the “real deal” or not, meaning if you’re actually going into labor or not. “To put it simply, labor contractions are sudden, sharp, regular, and painful,” says Teen. If you think you could be going into labor, make sure to keep track of your pain level, how regular the contractions are happening and the time between them. “If your contractions are painful, regular, and the time between them is getting shorter and shorter, there’s a good chance (but no guarantee) they are true labor contractions,” Teen says.

If you’re not exactly sure what you’re experiencing, Teen says it’s always best to notify your ob-gyn or get checked out by a medical professional.

What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

Braxton Hicks contractions, also called false labor pains, are contractions first felt sometime around the second or third trimester of pregnancy. They’re not the same thing as labor contractions and are more the body’s way of gearing up for true labor, which will come later in the pregnancy. But just as true labor contractions feel different depending on the individual, so can Braxton Hicks contractions, says Teen.

“Most describe Braxton Hicks as mild period cramps or a tightening across the belly. [These] contractions usually aren’t painful, but instead more annoying,” says Teen. Additionally, Braxton Hicks contractions – unlike true labor contractions – are irregular, intermittent, and don’t increase in intensity, adds Teen.

Other Signs of Labor

Finally, it’s important to understand that contractions aren’t the only sign that labor is underway. Lower back pain, water breaking, diarrhea, loss of the mucus plug, and cramping also indicate labor. Another less-talked about sign of labor worth flagging is known as “the bloody show.”

“The bloody show is basically a jelly-like substance that’s a combination of blood and mucus [that’s released from the vagina],” says Teen. “It’s usually a sign that your cervix is softening and dilating and most commonly noted more in active labor, around 4-7 centimeters.”

Taking these factors into account, as well as timing and frequency of contractions, will help you determine if you’re going into labor. Teen says if your contractions are intense and you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned below, “it’s definitely time to head to the hospital.”

  • Vomiting
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Can’t talk during your contractions
  • Don’t want to sit down in the car
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