What Do Contractions Feel Like?

They change intensity at different stages of labor

Labor contractions may feel discomfort or a dull ache in the lower back, a tightening sensation across the abdomen, and pelvic pressure.

Some compare contractions to intense period cramps or the pressure of a bowel movement. There may also be groin, thigh, and side pain.

While labor contractions can initially be mild, they grow longer, stronger, and closer together.

In comparison, Braxton-Hicks contractions—practice contractions or false labor—often feel like a squeezing of the abdomen that stays consistent.

Not everyone experiences contractions in the same way.

This article explains what contractions may 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 feel them four or more times in an hour and 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 minor bleeding.

This level of bleeding and release is not unusual. Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you notice bleeding as heavy as a menstrual period. 

Feeling of Early Labor vs. Braxton-Hicks

Early labor contractions are often confused with Braxton-Hicks contractions.

That’s because premature 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 increase in strength and duration.

The following list details distinguishing 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 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 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 probably came at the end of first-stage labor every few minutes. But, in the second stage, they space out to five minutes apart.

During the first stage of labor, contractions open (dilate) and thin (efface) the cervix. During the second stage, contractions 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 those 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 postpartum. 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.


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 tightening and don't follow a pattern.

Early labor contractions may feel crampy and come every five to 15 minutes. Your contractions will become more consistent, painful, and closer together in active labor. 

Post-birth, contractions will continue to help expel the placenta and bring your uterus back down in size.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I go to the hospital for contractions?

    It would be best to go to the hospital when you have painful contractions that last at least one minute each and occur 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 painful contractions for hours, days, or weeks before entering active labor.

    This means that beginning at 37 weeks, you may experience mild to painful contractions due to 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. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Is it normal to feel fake contractions?

  3. Raines DA, Cooper DB. Braxton Hicks contractions. StatPearls [Internet].

  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.