What Do Contractions Feel Like?

They change intensity at different stages of labor

People waiting to go into labor for the first time often wonder what their contractions will feel like. While they can certainly be as dramatic as some movies make them out to be, they differ depending on when they occur. They can even be relatively mild at first.

For example, Braxton-Hicks contractions (also called practice contractions or false labor) often feel like a squeezing of the abdomen. They stay consistent. Labor contractions may feel like a tightening sensation with cramping. These grow longer, stronger, and closer together over time.

What's more, not everyone experiences contractions in the same way. People have described contractions as feeling like:

  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • Bowel movement-like cramps
  • An ache in the lower back
  • Pain that radiates from the lower back to the abdomen
  • A deep, throbbing ache in the abdomen
  • Tummy that is rock hard, like a charley horse

This article explains what contractions feel like at different stages of pregnancy, labor, and the postpartum period.

Braxton-Hicks Contractions

Braxton-Hicks contractions may begin as early as your fourth month of pregnancy. They are your body’s way of preparing for labor.

These contractions feel like a tightening sensation in the abdomen. Unlike labor contractions, they do not follow a pattern. Often, they change or stop with one of the following:

  • Moving
  • Sleeping
  • Eating
  • Drinking

If you are near your due date, one way to distinguish Braxton-Hicks contractions from the real deal is by trying one of the above to see if it makes them stop. 

Braxton-Hicks contractions may occur more frequently the closer you are to your due date. They may be triggered by:

Braxton-Hicks contractions are not an emergency. They are present in all pregnancies, although people may experience them differently. 

However, if you are feeling them four or more times in an hour and you are not close to your due date, check with your healthcare provider to ensure they are not preterm labor contractions.

Early Labor Contractions

Early labor contractions are mild. They usually come every five to 15 minutes and last 60 to 90 seconds. These contractions often feel “crampy.” You may also feel a tightening sensation that begins in your low back and radiates toward the front of your abdomen.

Begin timing contractions in early labor. Timing contractions may help you see a consistent pattern and determine when to head to the hospital. 

Early labor is also when you may lose your mucus plug (a collection of mucus located at the cervix). When this happens, you may notice blood-tinged discharge or a small amount of bleeding. This level of bleeding and discharge is not unusual. If, however, you notice bleeding that is as heavy as a menstrual period, contact your healthcare provider immediately. 

Feeling of Early Labor vs. Braxton-Hicks

Early labor contractions are often confused with Braxton-Hicks contractions. That’s because early labor contractions usually start relatively mild and can take a little while to establish a pattern.

Early Labor vs. Braxton-Hicks - Illustration by Shideh Ghadeharizadeh

Verywell / Shideh Ghandeharizadeh

Sometimes the only way to distinguish between practice and actual contractions is with time. Early labor contractions will continue regardless of activity and will increase in strength and duration.

The following list details some ways you can distinguish between early labor and Braxton-Hicks contractions.

Early Labor
  • Contractions have a pattern. 

  • They get closer together over time.

  • They continue even when you rest or move around.

  • They get stronger over time.

  • Pain may start in the back and move to the front.

Braxton Hicks
  • Contractions don't follow a pattern.

  • They do not increase in frequency.

  • They may stop with rest or movement.

  • They do not increase in intensity.

  • Pain is often only felt in the abdomen.

Active Labor Contractions

Active labor is still first-stage labor, but it is more intense than early first-stage labor. At this stage, there is no doubt you are in labor. Your contractions are more consistent, more painful, and closer together. 

Active labor contractions feel like early labor contractions but stronger. You may feel the sensation in your back as well as your abdomen. In addition, you may feel cramps in your upper legs.

Other signs of active labor include:

  • Vomiting
  • Water breaking
  • Urge to push when transitioning to the second stage

Transition

Transition is often the most challenging and overwhelming part of labor. During this period, contractions may feel like a lot of pressure in your lower back and bottom, and you may begin to feel like you need to push during contractions.

This period of shifting from first-stage labor (opening of the cervix) to second-stage labor (pushing) usually lasts between 15 minutes to an hour.

Back Labor

Not everyone experiences back labor, but for those who do, it can be very uncomfortable. Back labor contractions feel like intense lower back pain. It is caused by the pressure of the fetus’s head against the low back.

Contractions During Pushing

During the pushing phase of labor, also known as the second stage, contractions feel like the urge to have a bowel movement.

Contractions during the second stage often slow down considerably. For example, they were probably coming every couple of minutes at the end of first-stage labor. But, in the second stage, they space out to maybe five minutes apart.

During the first stage of labor, contractions open (dilate) and thin (efface) the cervix. During the second stage, contractions serve to expel the fetus from the uterus.

Post-Birth Contractions

After you've given birth, you will continue to have contractions to help expel the placenta. Contractions are often less intense than the contractions that you felt during the other stages of labor and may feel like menstrual cramps.

This is known as the third stage of labor and usually takes between five and 30 minutes.

Even after the placenta is delivered, you will have contractions in the postpartum period. These contractions work to bring your uterus down to its pre-pregnancy size.

Breastfeeding stimulates uterine contractions. So, if you breastfeed, you will continue to have contractions. However, most people don’t experience discomfort from the contractions after the first few days following childbirth.

Summary

Contractions can feel different throughout pregnancy and labor. You may feel Braxton Hicks contractions starting in the fourth month of your pregnancy. These contractions may feel like a tightening sensation and don't follow a pattern.

Early labor contractions may feel crampy and come every five to 15 minutes. In active labor, your contractions will become more consistent, more painful, and closer together. Post birth, contractions will continue to help expel the placenta and bring your uterus back down in size.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that contractions serve a different purpose during various stages of pregnancy and labor. This can impact how they feel. Becoming familiar with the usual symptoms of contractions can help you prepare for what lies ahead.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I go to the hospital for contractions?

    You should go to the hospital when you have painful contractions that last for at least one minute each and are occurring every five minutes for at least two hours. You should also go if your water breaks, even if you aren't having contractions.

  • Can you have mild contractions for days?

    Yes. You can have mild, or even painful contractions for hours, days, or weeks before going into active labor. This means that beginning at 37 weeks, you may experience mild to painful contractions as a result of what's called prodromal labor.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to tell when labor begins.

  2. Lamaze International. What does a contraction feel like?.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. True vs. false labor.

  4. March of Dimes. Stages of labor.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Signs that labor is 24-48 hours away.

  6. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. What is back labor?

  7. March of Dimes. Your body after baby: The first 6 weeks.

  8. UC San Diego Health. When to go to the hospital for childbirth.

  9. American Pregnancy Association. Prodromal labor.

By Kathi Valeii
As a freelance writer, Kathi has experience writing both reported features and essays for national publications on the topics of healthcare, advocacy, and education. The bulk of her work centers on parenting, education, health, and social justice.