What Do Contractions Feel Like?

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Contractions can feel different depending on when they occur. For instance, Braxton-Hicks contractions during pregnancy, also called “practice contractions,” often feel like a squeezing of the abdomen. 

On the other hand, labor contractions may feel like a tightening sensation, plus they also often include cramping that feels similar to menstrual cramps. Unlike Braxton-Hicks contractions, labor contractions grow longer, stronger, and closer together over time.

Not everyone experiences contractions in the same way. People have described sensations as:

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

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

contractions

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Braxton-Hicks

Braxton-Hicks contractions happen during pregnancy. They 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:

  • Activity
  • A full bladder
  • Sex
  • Dehydration

Braxton-Hicks contractions are not an emergency. They are present in all pregnancies, although all people experience them slightly 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 doctor to ensure they are not preterm labor contractions.

Early Labor

Early labor 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.

Early labor contractions are mild. They usually come every five to 15 minutes and last 60–90 seconds. 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 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.

What Is Early Labor?

Early labor is 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 doctor immediately. 

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

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

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 can feel confusing and overwhelming.

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.

Pushing

During the pushing phase of labor (known as the second stage), contractions feel entirely different. That’s because the function of the contractions has changed.

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.

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.

Contractions during the pushing stage feel like the urge to have a bowel movement.

Post Birth

After your baby is born, you will continue to have contractions. Initially, these contractions will work to expel the placenta. The period between the delivery of your baby and the delivery of the placenta is known as the third stage of labor. But 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.

During the third stage of labor, contractions continue to allow the delivery of the placenta. This usually takes between five and 30 minutes. They are often less intense than the contractions that you felt during the other stages of labor. These contractions often feel like menstrual cramps. 

Breastfeeding stimulates uterine contractions. So, as long as 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 feel differently throughout the stages of labor. You may start to feel Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as practice contractions, starting in the fourth month of your pregnancy. These contractions prepare you for labor and don't follow a pattern.

Early labor contractions often feel crampy and come every five to 15 minutes. As you go into active labor, your contractions will become more consistent, more painful, and closer together. They will slow down as labor progresses and continues as you breastfeed your baby. At this point, contractions feel less intense and more like menstrual cramps.

A Word From Verywell

If you are pregnant, you may be wondering what to expect from contractions during labor. While everyone experiences labor differently, and no one can predict what contractions will feel like for you, rest assured that, overall, most people describe contraction sensations quite similar.

It can help to look at the different stages of labor (including pre-labor and post labor) when considering how contractions may feel. That's because contractions feel differently at different stages. Becoming familiar with the usual symptoms of contractions can help you prepare for what lies ahead.

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7 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.
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  6. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. What is back labor? Updated October 2020. 

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