What Do Contractions Feel Like? What to Expect

Published by 
Jess Miller
Last updated: 
April 14, 2023

Congratulations on your pregnancy!

Although not knowing what to expect (if this is your first pregnancy) can be scary or intimidating, rest assured that after reading this guide on what to expect during pregnancy contractions and what they feel like you will feel prepared as best as you can be.

It helps to understand just what contractions are, how they affect the body, and the different types of contraction to better inform you when to stay home and rest or when to rush off to your doctor or midwife for delivery.

What Are Contractions?

Pregnancy contractions occur when your uterus muscles tighten and flex. Think about how the other muscles in your body and how they stretch and flex during physical exercise: there is a strain and pull on the muscle. It’s similar to how contractions feel, although contractions can be more intense.

Effacement (the process of the cervix preparing for delivery) and dilation (the action of the cervix widening to prepare for delivery) result in uterine contractions. Progress in labor is determined by how much your cervix has widened to allow for the baby pass through during birth.

Of course, pregnancy contractions are more intense than the tightening of muscles during exercise because the muscle helps push out your baby during active labor. However, there are also inactive labor contractions. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the two.

To help you discern the difference between the active and non-active labor contractions, here is a list of the different types of pregnancy contractions, what to expect, and when you should contact your doctor.  Please note that whenever you feel concerned, you should still contact your doctor to always be on the safe side.

Types of Pregnancy Contractions

Braxton Hicks

Braxton hicks contractions can be described as warm-up contractions because although at times they can feel intense, they are typically mild contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions:

  • Can feel like a quick hardening of the abdomen in the front of the uterus
  • Are usually painless
  • Can be uncomfortable in the belly area
  • Prepare your uterine muscles for active labor
  • May begin as early as in the second trimester (the fourth month) of your pregnancy
  • Are more common in the third trimester
  • Can be triggered after a long day on your feet or exhaustion
  • May also be triggered by dehydration, so drink some water
  • Can be eased with rest
  • Typically happen at the end of the day
  • Don’t cause changes to your cervix
  • Is referred to as “fake” or “practice” labor

Prodromal Labor Contractions

These are contractions that happen in days or hours before pregnancy. They are not early labor contractions because they are experienced after 37 weeks of pregnancy, but are not considered active labor because they do not change the state of the cervix. Prodromal labor contractions:

  • Can also be described as “fake” labor, but are closer to active labor than Braxton Hicks contractions.
  • Are more painful than Braxton Hicks contractions
  • Moves the baby into the proper position for delivery
  • Don’t happen closer together over time
  • Changing your position does not stop these contractions

Early Labor Contractions

Early labor contractions are pre-labor contractions that are perfectly normal and shouldn’t be cause for any immediate concern.

  • These contractions can feel like moderate menstrual cramps
  • Are safe if they occur after 37 weeks of pregnancy
  • Can be intermittent between every seven to twenty minutes
  • You are still able to be active during these types of contractions
  • Can feel like a dull ache in your back, pressure in your pelvis and abdomen, and possibly cramping
  • If experienced, try to rest and remain in a calm environment
  • Are true contractions if they increase in frequency, duration, and strength

Active Labor Contractions

Time to grab your bag and get set up in your chosen place to birth your child. Active labor contractions:

  • Are regular contractions that happen every 4-5 minutes
  • Are triggered by prostaglandins and oxytocin hormones in the body
  • Last consistently for about 30 seconds
  • Are painful in the front and back of the uterus
  • The uterus does not relax between contractions

Transitional Contractions

As the most challenging part of labor, transitional contractions:

  • Happen when the cervix dilates from 8-10 centimeters
  • Are the strongest contractions
  • Can last up to two minutes
  • Make it difficult to talk or be touched
  • Create massive pressure in the vaginal and rectum area

Pushing Contractions

The pushing stage of labor occurs when the cervix is fully dilated and is no longer in front of the baby’s head. The birth canal is now ready for the baby to pass through. During the pushing stage of labor, the contractions become more regular than active labor (transitional labor). Pushing contractions:

  • Slow down (rest as much as you can between contractions)
  • Happen about every five minutes
  • Last about 45-90 seconds
  • Urge you to push
  • Move the pressure from the abdomen to the lower perineum and rectal area
  • Make you feel the need to poop due to the pressure
  • May cause a ripping or burning sensation

Please note that mothers who have opted for epidural anesthesia may not feel the usual effects of a pushing contractions. Although mothers who feel the need to push can result in more effective labor, pushing at an effacement of 10 centimeters can be perfectly effective.

Back Contractions

When the baby’s head is facing up (toward the abdomen) rather than down (toward the spine), you can experience back contractions. Back contractions can be described as intense pain because the baby’s head is pushing against the spine which increases the back pain experienced during active labor.

Although most babies are delivered with their face facing upward (toward the abdomen), they can occasionally be faced down, which is nothing to be concerned about. If you experience back contractions as a result of the baby’s head being faced down, it is considered perfectly normal.

Back contractions can cause more backache than cramping in the abdomen but are still contractions that are considered active labor.

Post-birth Contractions

Once the baby is born, your body will need to give birth to the placenta. And the uterus will need to return to its regular size. Post-birth contractions:

  • Is the process known as “involution”
  • Can also be referred to as “afterbirth pains”
  • Are normal and necessary
  • Allow the uterus to contract to birth the placenta
  • Are the strongest 2-3 days after birth
  • May continue up to six weeks after birth until your uterus returns to regular size
  • Can be triggered by breastfeeding
  • Can increase in pain with each pregnancy

How to Tell the Difference Between Types of Contractions

Father put his ear at his wife's belly to hear his baby inside

The only precise way to tell the difference between false labor and pre or active labor is to have a vaginal exam to look for changes in your cervix. However, you can try to tell the difference by timing the contractions and changing your activity. Early or active labor contractions will increase in strength and frequency, while fake labor contractions will not.

If your contractions are irregular and don’t increase in strength and frequency, they are most likely Braxton Hicks contractions. You can assist in relieving these types of contractions by drinking water and walking or lying down (the opposite activity when the contractions were brought on). True labor contractions do not stop no matter how hydrated or rested you are.

However, if you are experiencing early labor contractions before 36-37 weeks call your doctor immediately. These contractions are considered as premature labor and can:

  • Happen six or more times an hour
  • Cause you to urinate more frequently
  • Feel like pressure in your abdomen as if the baby’s pushing down
  • Cause abdominal cramping and low backache
  • Increase in strength and frequency by laying down (avoid laying down during premature labor to prevent it)
  • Be a danger to the baby

Be sure to call your doctor also when there is:

  • Vagal bleeding
  • Diarrhea
  • Watery discharge (your water breaks)
  • Your mucus plug passes (a clear, pink, or slightly bloody discharge)
  • Have early labor contractions before 36-37 weeks of pregnancy
  • Anytime you feel something isn’t right

In Conclusion

Woman just gave birth with her child and she is carrying it

There are eight types of contractions you may experience during your pregnancy and labor as detailed in this article. However, two of the eight types of contractions are what can be referred to as fake contractions. The most telling differences between these kinds and active contractions are:

  • Active contractions increase in frequency and strength, whereas fake contractions do not
  • Fake contractions are irregular, whereas active ones occur during consistent, regular intervals
  • Active contractions continue regardless of a change in activity or rest, whereas fake ones can cease when there is a change in activity or rest.

Experiencing pregnancy and childbirth for the first time can be scary because you don’t know what to expect. This guide can assist in preparing you from the first tingle of a contraction through the post-birth contractions.

But what’s more, is that you can rest assured that you now know the difference in the types of pregnancy and labor contractions to be prepared to endure them in the comfort of your own home, or know when it’s time to move to the place you decide to birth your child.

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