What do contractions feel like? You’ve seen them on TV. You’ve heard the horror stories from other mamas. But when it comes to experiencing contractions for yourself, you can’t quite imagine what they’re really going to feel like.
The reality is, you can read as much as you like on Peanut about contractions. You can get all the intel on labor pains. You can get a PhD in losing your mucus plug—but when the time comes, you’re going to have your own very individual experience.
That being said, it’s never a bad idea to get as informed as you can be so that there are as few bombshells as possible that can be dropped on the day.
So, without further ado, let’s get cracking on the curious case of contractions.
How do I know if I’m having contractions?
What do labor contractions feel like?
Contractions are one of your body’s most significant ways of prepping for your baby’s journey into the world.
In most cases, contractions feel like all the screws in your uterus are being tightened at once. This sensation is often accompanied by a cramping feeling that hurts to a lesser or greater degree, depending on the contraction type, your body, and when the contractions occur. So fun, all of it. The muscles in your uterus are chipping in to do their (big) part in the effacement (stretching and thinning) and dilation (opening up) of your cervix.
But the job of the contractions doesn’t end there. They then do a lot of the work to help get your baby out. Like security guards muscling out a patron when it’s time to go.
An important characteristic of contractions? They come in waves—or, in some cases, tsunamis—reaching a peak, dissipating, and then gaining momentum again.
The thing is, and you may be a little bored of hearing this when it comes to anything pregnancy-related, but everyone is different. No contractions are made equal. The degree of pain and discomfort you may feel differs vastly from mama to mama. The point when the contractions occur in your pregnancy (pre-labor, early labor, or when labor is in full swing) also has a huge bearing on their intensity.
So, while no two sets of labor contractions are alike, here is a very broad outline of the journey:
Contractions and your mucus plug
Contractions are often preceded (or accompanied) by losing your mucus plug.
If you’re wondering what that is, it’s basically a little plug that’s been sealing up your cervix, acting as a mini security system to safeguard your little one from the outside world. Of course, you can’t have them in there forever, and as your body starts preparing for labor by softening up your cervix, the mucus plug is like, “I’m out of here.”
Be on the lookout for a sticky, clear (or possibly brownish or bloody) jelly, but it’s important to know that losing your mucus plug is not a sign that you’re going into labor. In fact, it may happen to you weeks before your baby is ready to make their grand entrance.
However, it is a signal that your contractions are somewhere on the horizon, however distant a horizon that might be.
How do contractions feel when they first start?
So what do early contractions feel like?
When your contractions begin, they may feel something like period cramps. They might also feel like your insides are a towel and someone has taken it upon themselves to wring you out.
If your contractions are about 15 minutes apart or less, and each episode lasts about 30 seconds, it probably means that you’re in labor—but no need to rush to the hospital yet. At this point, think comfort. Perhaps a bath. Perhaps a massage. Perhaps a change of position. Perhaps a walk.
Also, at this point, get the timer out. For both you and your healthcare provider, it’s important that you have the intel on how far apart your contractions are.
Next question: what do contractions feel like when they start to gain momentum? Because generally, they really will. They change from being relatively calm and sporadic early on to being more frequent and more intense as time goes by.
So how do you know when it’s time to pick up that bag and head to the hospital, or give your midwife a shout, or (à la Seth Meyers’ wife) head to the lobby of your apartment building?
Here’s the rule of thumb: If your contractions are less than 5 minutes apart and last for a minute or more each, it’s time to get moving.
What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?
Just to throw a wrench into the situation, labor contractions are not the only type of contractions you have to watch out for. There’s a whole other kind called Braxton Hicks contractions.
Think of Braxton Hicks contractions as your body’s way of getting in shape for the big day.
Some fast facts about Braxton Hicks contractions:
- They can happen as early as your second trimester.
- They don’t mean that you are in labor.
- They don’t happen to everyone.
- Generally, they’re not so sore, which is good news.
- They can be a little uncomfortable (and surprising). Think period cramps. Think tightening.
- They can be brought on by your baby’s kicking or movements you make.
Because pregnancy is fraught with gray areas, if you’re worried about any sort of pain or discomfort that doesn’t feel right, consult with your doc.
Right then, mama. Crunch time is near. You’ve got this.