After months of Braxton Hicks contractions and weeks of prodromal labor, you’ll arrive at the “main event” of you pregnancy. Soon you’ll be delivering your baby!

It’s exciting, nerve racking, intimidating, and exhilarating all at once.

But how will it start? How will you know you’re in labor?

You know that labor usually begins with contractions, but what do contractions actually feel like?

In this post, we’ll unpack it all so you’ll know what to expect when the time comes.

What are contractions?

Before we answer the question what do contractions feel like, we need to first understand what a contraction is.

As the name implies, when you have a contraction, your uterus tightens or contracts and then releases and relaxes. It’s similar to how you’d flex your bicep and then relax. (The uterus, after all, is a muscle!)

However, at 9 months of pregnancy, the uterus is the largest muscle in a woman’s body, which can make a contraction feel quite… intense.

Contractions are your body’s way of preparing for the birth of your baby, and they will help you push your baby out.

There are different kinds of contractions—we will get to that soon!—and not all of them are uncomfortable. However, there is a big difference between “practice contractions” and true labor contractions.

Similarly, every mom experiences contractions a little bit differently, so describing what they feel like is challenging. Subsequent births are generally much quicker than first labors as well.

Although you may feel contractions at varying levels of intensity, know that your body is simply doing it’s job—getting to a safe point to deliver your baby.

What do contractions feel like?

Contractions can feel like a very strong menstrual cramp or tightening in your lower abdomen.

As your labor progresses, your contractions may start out as a low-level menstrual cramp feeling and will get stronger and more intense as labor progresses.

Once you’re fully dilated and your baby starts to descend into your pelvis, you’ll feel more pressure in your lower pelvis, vagina, and anus.

Some moms compare this sensation of labor like having to take a ginormous bowel movement, which makes sense because the same muscles used to push out stool are used in pushing out baby.

Like pregnancy itself, each labor experience looks different. The surest sign that you’re experiencing true labor cramps is that they regularly increase in intensity and frequency.

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What about back labor?

Your baby’s position in your uterus can change how your contractions feel. (Wondering how exactly your baby is positioned? Try belly mapping.)

When baby is “sunny side up” or occiput posterior, you may experience back labor because baby’s head is pushing against your spine.

No matter how baby is positioned, you will likely feel your uterus tighten and relax again with each wave of contractions. Since the uterus is the largest muscle in a pregnant woman’s body (source), you can feel the cramping anywhere from deep within your abdomen, to the sides of your body, and, yes, in your back.

Prodromal contractions

Before you experience true labor contractions, you may have what are known as prodromal contractions. These contractions can go by several different names—false labor or pre-labor most commonly—but they’re never the “real deal.”

Many women believe prodromal contractions are true labor contractions, and they’ll rush to the hospital or birthing center, only to be sent home again.

The important difference between prodromal contractions and regular contractions is that prodromal contractions don’t increase in frequency or intensity like labor contractions do. They might get closer together or a bit stronger throughout the day, but they’re rarely ever within five minutes of each other and don’t progress into real labor or dilate your cervix.

Experts aren’t really sure what causes prodromal contractions. Sometimes standing too long, having a long day at work, or being overly stressed can bring them on.

If you do experience these contractions, rest is the best way to making them subside. As frustrating and exhausting as it can be, prodromal labor is just your body’s natural way of preparing itself for true labor.

Braxton Hicks contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions are another form of contractions you may experience. They’re usually called “practice contractions” and shouldn’t be painful. If you notice your belly feeling unusually hard all over, it’s most likely a Braxton Hicks contraction.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, Braxton Hicks contractions are most common during the third trimester and they usually last from 30-60 seconds.

Unlike labor contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and do not increase in intensity.

Most midwives and doctors believe that these practice contractions are simply your uterus’ way of toning itself for delivery and promoting blood flow to the placenta. They may help soften the cervix as well.

If you notice that you’re having a Braxton Hicks contraction, there’s no need to worry or call your doctor. Take a few minutes to relax, put your feet up or lay on your left side, and drink some water and they should subside.

When should I start timing contractions?

Although you’ll always be on the lookout for signs of labor toward the end of your pregnancy, timing your contractions is the best way to ensure that they’re true labor contractions and not a false alarm.

If you think your labor may be starting, pay attention to the frequency and intensity of your contractions.

If your contractions start to come on a regular basis, you’ll want to begin timing them. There are also some amazingly helpful apps you can download to help you time your contractions. Full term is a great (free) iPhone app and Contraction Timer is another free option for Android.

When should I call my doula?

Call your doula as soon as your contractions become regular. She may not come to your home right away, but she will definitely want to be aware of the situation. Plus she can provide excellent advice over the phone.

Note that many doulas have stressed to us that you should call them and not just text them, as a txt is easy to miss.

At some point during your labor, your doula likely will come over to your home to guide you through the early stages of labor. They will also accompany you to the hospital or birth center as well.

When should I go to the birth center or hospital?

Your doula can be a great resource to help you understand when it’s ideal to head to the birth center. But, as a general guideline, follow the 4-1-1 rule of labor.

The 4-1-1 Rule of labor

Head to the birth center when your contractions are

  • 4 minutes apart
  • 1 minute in length (at least)
  • And have been that way for 1 hour

It’s important to note that second (or any subsequent) births can move quickly. If you’ve delivered before, consider heading to the birthing center or hospital when contractions are 5 to 7 minutes apart. If the contractions are quickly becoming closer and stronger, just start heading in—you don’t necessarily need to wait the full hour.

How long do contractions last?

Once you start having regular contractions, they’ll continue to progress in frequency and intensity until you deliver your baby. The following gives an idea of the timing and stages of labor you’ll experience:

  • Early labor usually lasts around 8-12 hours (less for subsequent pregnancies), with the contractions coming every 5-30 minutes and lasting about 30 seconds.
  • Active labor generally lasts for about 2-3.5 hours, with your contractions coming every 3-4 minutes and lasting almost a minute.
  • Transition is the shortest, but also the most intense part of labor, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The contractions will come quickly and last from 60-90 seconds as your cervix dilates to 10 cm for delivery.

Our Natural Labor Playbook is a great guide for laboring moms to know what phase of labor they’re in and how to stay as comfortable as possible through each phase.

What can you do during contractions to manage the intensity?

Contractions are painful, but they also have an amazing purpose: to get your body ready to deliver. There are many chemical/narcotic pain relief choices but having a natural birth is totally possible with a few relaxation and pain management techniques up your sleeve. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Walking, changing positions, and using a birthing ball are all great ways to ensure you stay active and engaged during contractions.
  • Massage, counter pressure, and acupressure are soothing ways that your partner or doula can help ease pain in specific areas.
  • Deep breathing, meditation, and water births can help you stay calm.
  • Affirmation can be a powerful tool to help you stay confident of your ability to deliver naturally. Our affirmation cards are the perfect resource to take with you into delivery.

How other moms reply when asked “What do contractions feel like?”

Here’s what other mamas who have labored naturally say about how contractions really feel.

  • My practice surges just felt like my belly hardening, but more externally. When labor began, they started as low menstrual cramps, which eventually led to increased pressure and tightening either in my back or the front. While I know many women experience pain in labor, I cringe at using the phrase “labor pain” because of the very negative and generally inaccurate connotation it gives. My labors were uncomfortable and tiring, but not painful like a migraine or severe gas pain. – Nicolle K.
  • They didn’t feel like pain at all. They just felt like the most intensity a person could possibly feel. Honestly I wasn’t even aware it was true labor until maybe an hour before she was born. I had been laboring all day and just thought it was false labor. My belly could get tight and feel sort of crampy. It didn’t get intense until the end and wow….I progressed very quickly once I did the belly lift exercise to get rid of back labor and she was born shortly after that. I kept reminding myself that tension causes pain and so I made sure to remain very loose and to imagine my body opening for baby. Honestly it was the most amazing thing I have ever felt. – Jessica D.
  • I experienced extreme menstrual cramps as a teenager that would have me literally writhing in pain. So when I went into labor the first time, I thought the contractions weren’t that bad. They felt like my menstrual cramps, up until the point of transition. Then it was extreme pressure. With my second, it felt like a hot knife in the small of my back. After getting out of bed and doing some rotations on the birth ball, I believe the baby repositioned himself because I thankfully did not feel that sensation again for the rest of my labor. Even with pitocin-induced contractions this time, it still only felt like menstrual cramps. My second birth was by far the least painful of the two, and I was so grateful. – Amber A-P.
  • Braxton hicks felt like tightening. Like a drawstring bag being pulled closed and the center was my belly button. When I experienced my labor contractions they were more like period cramps in the beginning. Active labor could be compared to some gnarly stomach virus type pains and as for transition.. kind of a blur and I kept falling asleep between them anyway. The end was definitely the worst, but if you can make it to it, you can make it through it. – Hannah W.
  • Most of my contractions felt like they were in my thighs. And so much pressure. I had gradual increase in pain, but only about 20 minutes worth of insane intensity right before it was time to push. It’s like I had to give into the pain and ‘feel’ it work. That’s what got me through my 4…,pregnant with #5 so we’ll see ❤? – Amanda M.
  • Never realized I was having prodromal labor for days. Once my water broke, contractions started immediately and quickly built intensity and I was ready to push. It felt like the most intense pressure ever on my pelvis and tailbone. I could feel baby turning and moving out with each contraction. Not necessarily extremely painful, just very intense pressure. – Casey F.
  • True labor contractions felt like someone was ripping my insides apart. (Still worth doing it naturally!) Practice are more hardening on the tummy with a bit of pressure. – Kathryn M.
  • My practice surges were just a tightening of my belly, I barely noticed them and just breathed through them. My real ones I knew were real because my water broke that morning. 🙂 BUT- They would start at my low back and wrap around my sides then tighten in my abdomen. I only had those for a little bit and then it was all back labor. – Kate B.
  • I never had back pain or period-type cramping pain. My labor pains were 100% down the front of both thighs. It was like an intense ache just radiating down my thighs. Not at all what I expected or what I was told! – Christa M.

What about you?

How would you describe your contractions? Or, first time mamas, do you feel more confident about having a natural birth after reading these tips and stories? We sure hope so!

Share your thoughts in the comments below!