What do contractions feel like?

You might sometimes feel a tightening or cramping in your stomach and wonder: Is this it? Am I going into labour?

It might be difficult to tell at first, especially if this is your first time having a baby, but it helps if you know what to look out for.

Here, we'll help you with that by describing what contractions can feel like, and how Braxton Hicks ‘practice' contractions might feel compared to the real deal, which are sometimes called true labour contractions.

We'll also provide some tips on how to manage the pain, and when to call your midwife or doctor.

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. These are painless tightenings of the belly that don't come at regular intervals, and don't result in you actually going into labour. You may start feeling them as early as the second trimester, but they're most commonly (and frequently) experienced in the third trimester. You might also hear them referred to as practice contractions.

  • Labour contractions. These are the kind that don't go away, and end with the birth of your baby. They usually occur a week or two either side of your due date, but it's important to call your doctor or midwife at any time during your pregnancy if you think you may be experiencing them.

  • Preterm contractions. If you experience true labour contractions before your pregnancy is full term, these can be called preterm contractions. The word preterm, or premature, is used when labour starts before you reach 37 weeks pregnant. Call your midwife or doctor if you experience any of the signs of premature labour, or if you're in any doubt at all about what you're feeling.

What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

Braxton Hicks contractions can feel like a tightening that starts from the top of your bump and spreads downwards through your tummy.

This feeling is caused by a mild tensing of the muscles in your uterus, and it can last for around 30 to 60 seconds before the muscles relax again.

Braxton Hicks contractions aren't usually painful, but the feeling of tightness can be uncomfortable. The intensity of these contractions may ebb and flow — for example, they could feel weaker, then stronger, then weaker again.

Practice contractions are normal and expected — they're your body's way of getting ready for what's to come.

They can happen at any time, but can also be triggered by physical exertion, during sex, or even when someone just touches your bump.

If you don't experience them, that's fine too. Some mums-to-be never get Braxton Hicks contractions at all, while others start feeling them from the second or third trimester of pregnancy.

If you do have them, they may come as often as several times in an hour, or just a few times a day or week.

To relieve the discomfort of Braxton Hicks contractions, try walking around, taking a bath, lying down or changing positions.

Staying hydrated is believed to help 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 labour contractions, ask your midwife or doctor for advice.

What Do Early Labour Contractions Feel Like?

It's difficult to predict or describe what real labour contractions will feel like for you. This is partly because everyone's experience of pain is different.

For you, labour contractions may feel quite mild, or they may feel very strong and intense. For some mums-to-be, they feel like extreme period pains.

Unlike the ebb and flow of Braxton Hicks, true labour contractions feel steadily more intense over time. During true labour contractions, you'll feel your belly tightening and becoming very hard while the contraction lasts, then the pain will subside as the muscles relax again.

Another sign that your contractions are the real thing is that they don't go away when you change position, take a bath or go for a walk.

Keep in mind that, in the very early stages of labour, your contractions may start and stop. It's also possible for them to continue for a long time without getting longer or more intense.

This is perfectly normal, so don't worry. In fact, it's a good idea to use any breaks in the pattern of contractions to get some rest or have something to eat.

If you do have a snack, eating slow-release carbohydrates, like brown bread or brown pasta, will help boost your energy reserves for a little longer.

Of course, if you're in any doubt about what you're experiencing, or if you're still unsure what your labour contractions should feel like, check with your midwife or doctor. He or she will probably ask you some questions, and then advise you to either stay home and relax for a little longer, see your doctor for a check-up, or grab your hospital bag and get to the hospital or birthing centre.

Timing Your Contractions

An important difference between Braxton Hicks and true labour contractions is that real labour contractions come at regular intervals and get closer together in time.

That's why it can help to time your contractions. Besides helping you decide whether your contractions are the real thing, it's also a good way of determining when to leave for the hospital or birthing centre.

Your midwife or doctor will advise you on how to do this when the time comes, but as a rule of thumb it's time to get going when your contractions are coming at 4 to 5-minute intervals, and are lasting for around 60 seconds.

If you don't live close to the hospital, you may need to leave earlier to allow some extra time for getting there.

Other Signs of Labour to Look Out For

Another tell-tale sign that you're feeling real contractions is the presence of other early signs of labour.

Some of these symptoms may be obvious, but others less so. Signs that your labour is starting might include:

  • Your waters breaking, a clear, pink or blood-streaked mucus discharge. This is when the mucus plug sealing your cervix is released and comes out of your vagina.

  • An unusual backache

  • A sudden urge to pee

  • An attack of nausea.

How Can You Manage the Pain of Labour Contractions?

To help manage the pain of those early labour contractions, you could try:

  • Going for a walk

  • Napping

  • Having a shower or warm bath

  • Doing some of the relaxation techniques you may have learned at childbirth classes.

As your labour progresses, contractions can feel more painful. It's a good idea to discuss your options for comfort measures during labour with your midwife or doctor ahead of time.

It's also a good idea to discuss these with your birth partner or your doula, if you have one.

For example, some mums-to-be choose pain medication, like an epidural. Others opt for non-medical forms of relief, like hypnobirthing. Some consider a combination of several different methods.

Pain management is a very personal process and choice. You might even change your mind about what you'd like as your labour progresses, and this is fine.

Keep an open mind and don't be shy about talking to your midwife or doctor about what you might like to have and what's available to you.

What's your take? Try our labour pain relief quiz to tell us more and find out what other mums-to-be are saying.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • Some mums say that labour contractions can feel like very strong period pains. You may feel contractions in your back, at the front of your belly or at the top of your legs.
  • It’s best to call your midwife or doctor if you think your labour has started, and they’ll be able to advise you based on what you tell them. Generally speaking though, it’s time to head for the hospital or birthing centre when your contractions are coming every 4 or 5 minutes and lasting for 60 seconds or more.
    Always let your midwife or doctor know immediately if anything changes, for example if your waters break or you experience any bleeding.
  • Some of the early signs of labour can include:

    • Unusual backache
    • A sudden urge to pee
    • A discharge of clear or blood-tinged mucus – this may be your mucus plug
    • Waters breaking – a trickle or gush of clear fluid from your vagina
    • Regular contractions that increase in strength and get closer together over time.

It's natural to feel nervous about what those first contractions will feel like and whether you'll know when labour has really begun.

Remember, your midwife and doctor are there to help you know when the time has come and what to do then.

It might help to keep in mind that despite the pain and discomfort you might feel, those early Braxton Hicks contractions are helping your body prepare for labour, and each true labour contraction is helping to dilate your cervix and push your baby a little further down into your pelvis.

It's been a long and eventful journey since you first found out you were pregnant, and now you've nearly arrived at your destination – this is the moment you've been working towards and waiting for.

Your first true labour contractions are a sure sign that it won't be long before you finally get to cradle your newborn in your arms, and everything will have been worth it!