Labor contractions

If you’re a first-time mom, you might be nearing your delivery day with some anxiety. It’s normal to wonder when labor might start and how it will feel.

Though there are many signs that you’re in labor, one of the most reliable is when you start experiencing consistent contractions.

Here’s a guide to what types of contractions you might experience, what they’ll feel like, and how to tell when it’s time to head to the hospital.

False labor (Braxton-Hicks contractions)

Around your fourth month of pregnancy, you may start to notice your uterus contracting from time to time. This tightening is known as Braxton-Hicks contractions.

They are usually infrequent and irregular. They are your body’s way of preparing the uterine muscles for delivery day.

What do they feel like?

These contractions…

  • are generally painless
  • are concentrated in your abdomen
  • make your belly feel tight
  • may be uncomfortable at times

Most important? They don’t get stronger, longer, or closer together. They also don’t cause changes to your cervix.

You may get these contractions when you’re tired, dehydrated, or on your feet too much. False labor will usually ease up if you change what you’re doing.

Before you call your doctor, try some of the following coping techniques to see if the contractions calm down or go away completely:

  • drink plenty of water
  • change positions (like from standing to sitting)
  • stop what you’re doing and rest (preferably on your left side)

If you’ve tried these things and you’re still having frequent Braxton-Hicks contractions, it’s a good idea to call your doctor to rule out preterm labor.

Preterm labor contractions

Regular contractions before 37 weeks may be a sign of premature labor.

The timing of regular contractions means that they follow a pattern. For example, if you’re getting a contraction every 10 to 12 minutes for over an hour, you may be in preterm labor.

During a contraction, your entire abdomen will get hard to the touch. Along with tightening in your uterus, you may feel:

  • a dull backache
  • pressure in your pelvis
  • pressure in your abdomen
  • cramping

These are signs that you should call your doctor, especially if they are accompanied by vaginal bleeding, diarrhea, or a gush of watery discharge (which may signal your water breaking).

Some risk factors for preterm labor include:

  • multiples pregnancy (twins, triplets, etc.)
  • abnormal conditions of the uterus, cervix, or placenta
  • smoking or using drugs
  • high stress levels
  • history of preterm birth
  • certain infections
  • being under- or overweight before pregnancy
  • not getting proper prenatal care

It’s important to pay attention to the duration and frequency of your contractions, as well as any secondary symptoms. You’ll need to provide this information to your doctor.

There are various treatments and drugs your medical team can use to try to stop labor from progressing.

Stages of labor contractions

Unlike Braxton-Hicks contractions, once true labor contractions begin, they do not slow down or quiet with simple measures like drinking water and resting. Instead, they get longer, stronger, and closer together.

They’re working to dilate the cervix.

Early labor

Contractions at this stage are still somewhat mild. The tightening you’ll feel lasts anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds.

These contractions are organized, coming at regular intervals of time. They may start out spaced far apart, but by the time you’re nearing the end of early labor, they should be close to just five minutes apart.

During early labor, you may also notice other signs that help you realize it’s the real deal. As your cervix begins to open, you may see tinged discharge from your mucous plug, also known as the bloody show.

Your water may break as either a small trickle or a huge gush of fluid from your vagina.

Active labor and transition

Contractions leading all the way to transition are more intense than those you’ll experience in the early stages.

During these stages of labor, your cervix will open all the way from 4 to 10 centimeters before it’s time to push your baby out into the world.

You may feel each contraction wrap around your body. They may start at your back and move around your torso to your abdomen. Your legs may also cramp and ache.

If you suspect you’re in active labor, you should call your doctor and consider heading to the hospital. Contractions in active labor generally last between 45 to 60 seconds, with three to five minutes of rest in between.

In transition, when the cervix dilates from 7 to 10 centimeters, the pattern changes to where contractions last 60 to 90 seconds, with just 30 seconds to 2 minutes of rest between. Your contractions may even overlap as your body prepares to push.

On the blog Giving Birth with Confidence, women share their experiences with how contractions in active labor feel. You’ll notice that the experience is different for every woman and every pregnancy.

Lightheadedness and nausea are also common complaints that come along with contractions in active labor. As you work your way through transition, you may also experience:

  • hot flashes
  • chills
  • vomiting
  • gas

How to keep comfortable during contractions

Contractions are at their most intense during the active labor and transition stages. There are a number of things you can do to deal with the pain, both with and without drugs.

It’s important to remember that how you choose to labor is up to you.

Drug-free pain management methods include:

  • hopping into the shower or bathtub
  • walking or changing positions
  • meditating
  • hypnosis
  • listening to music
  • using massage or counter pressure
  • engaging in gentle yoga
  • finding ways to distract your mind from the pain (counting, games, etc.)

Pain intervention methods include:

  • analgesics
  • anesthetics

Analgesics like Demerol help to dull pain, while keeping some feeling and muscle movement intact. Anesthetics like epidurals completely block the pain, along with all feeling and muscle movement.

Though these drugs are effective, each comes with its own risks and side effects. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your pain management options before you go into labor.

You may consider writing up a birth plan to help guide your choices. This will help let medical staff know what interventions you’re comfortable exploring when you’re in the trenches of labor.

When to call your doctor

You may worry you’re calling your doctor with a false alarm, or that your contractions don’t warrant heading to the hospital just yet.

Whenever you feel concerned about something during pregnancy, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know what’s going on.

Call your doctor if your contractions:

  • are frequent, even if they’re painless
  • don’t calm down with drinking water, resting, or changing positions
  • are happening before week 37 of pregnancy
  • are organized, coming in a timed pattern
  • are closer than 5 minutes apart (head to hospital)
  • are accompanied by pain, bleeding, gush of fluids, or other secondary labor symptoms

If your contractions are closer than five minutes apart, head to the hospital.

The takeaway

It can be difficult to determine if contractions mean your baby is on the way or if your uterus is simply practicing.

When in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Time your contractions and take note of any other symptoms you’re experiencing so you can report them to your doctor.

When the time does come for your baby to enter the world, try to remember that the intense pain will be temporary. You’ll be holding your little one in your arms soon!