Talk to any mom about labor and delivery and the question “What do contractions feel like?” is bound to come up. Contractions are what help move things along during labor, although it’s also common to get them before you go into labor. And, as most women will tell you, they feel less than amazing.
The uterus is a large muscle, and just like any other muscle in your body, it will flex when it’s stimulated, explains Sherry A. Ross, MD, a women's health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period.Hormonal changes can start contractions—but how a woman experiences contractions depends on her pain threshold and what type of contraction she’s actually having (yep, there’s more than one kind). Here are the factors that can affect what contractions do feel like.
Types of Contractions
What do contractions feel like? It depends. There are several different types of contractions, and they’re not all associated with labor. Here are the main ones that should be on your radar:
• Braxton Hicks contractions. These irregular contractions can happen on and off before you’re actually in labor, says Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida.
• Preterm contractions. Preterm contractions are those that occur at regular intervals before the 37th week of pregnancy, Greves says. They also may be associated with cervical changes like effacement (when the cervix thins out) and dilation (when the cervix opens) if a woman is actually in preterm labor.
• Early labor contractions. Also known as “latent phase” contractions, these are felt at regular intervals in the initial stages of labor, says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of minimally invasive gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago.
• Active labor contractions. Typically happening five to seven minutes apart, at most, they’re associated with cervical changes, Shepherd says.
• Transition contractions. These contractions are the ones often mimicked on TV. Happening more frequently than active labor contractions, they are needed to push the baby out of the vagina, and they’re the “hardest part of labor,” Ross says.
• Back contractions. Sometimes the positioning of the baby or intensity of uterine contractions can cause women to feel painful contractions at regular intervals in their back, Ross says.
What Do Preterm Contractions Feel Like?
If a woman experiences regular contractions before the 37th week of her pregnancy, they’re preterm contractions. Without seeing a doctor, it can be tough to know whether your preterm contractions are happening without cervical changes or if they’re accompanied by the cervical changes that can lead to preterm labor. That’s why it’s important to call your ob-gyn if you’re experiencing any regular contractions, even if it’s before your due date. “No one can predict if these early, painful contractions can become more intense or fade away without any doctor intervention,” Ross says. “The risk of prematurity is too great not to take an active role in attempting to stop the uterine contractions.”
Preterm contractions can range from mildly uncomfortable to painful abdominal cramping, Shepherd says. But some women may not even realize they’re having contractions. “Sometimes women have discomfort and we hook up them up to the monitor to see if they’re having contractions,” she says. Do preterm contractions hurt less than actual early labor contractions? “Not necessarily,” Greves says.
What Do Labor Contractions Feel Like?
Ask several women this question and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. “It was like an earthquake of pain through my middle, getting stronger and stronger, then relief and prep for ‘aftershocks,’” says Shana L., a mom of three. But Elaine Q., a mom of two, says, “They just felt like really bad menstrual cramps … it really wasn’t as bad as I expected.”
Labor contraction pain can vary from woman to woman because everyone experiences pain differently, Shepherd says. How long and intense the contractions are, and what phase of labor you’re in, can affect your overall perception of the pain too, she says. In early labor, a woman may feel discomfort or just a squeezing feeling in her abdomen. “When you’re in the early part of labor, contractions are typically more tolerable—usually patients aren’t asking for pain relief, or if they are, it’s not for something super strong,” Greves says. Active labor contractions, on the other hand, happen when a woman’s cervix is dilating and effacing, and Shepherd describes these as “very intense.” Transition labor contractions, which happen when the baby is actually coming out, are the “most powerful, frequent and painful,” Ross says.
What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?
Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular contractions that aren’t associated with cervical changes, and they can happen anytime in a woman’s pregnancy. “With Braxton Hicks, contractions aren’t as powerful as labor contractions,” Greves says. Some women may experience Braxton Hicks contractions and not even realize it.
Becky S., a mom of two, had Braxton Hicks contractions during her pregnancy with her second daughter. “They were never so bad that I felt like I was in labor,” she says. “The contractions felt like a squeezing and tightening of my stomach that kept going up and up, mixed with period cramps. Like little lightning strikes.”
What Do Back Contractions Feel Like?
During labor, women may notice lower back pain due to the positioning of the baby or the intensity of the uterine contractions, Ross says. Not all women in labor have back contractions, but they can happen—and when they do, these contractions feel forceful and cause “unbearable pain,” Ross says. Lee P., a mom of three, experienced back contractions and says they felt like “being hit by a truck in my back.”
If you’re experiencing back contractions—or any contractions during pregnancy—call your doctor. She’ll guide you on next steps so baby can arrive safe and sound.
Updated September 2017