What do contractions feel like?

Woman experiencing a contraction

It’s probably the most common question I get in my classes. And it’s also the hardest to answer! Everyone’s perception and experience of contractions is different, so I can’t tell you exactly what yours might feel like.

What I can do is share a variety of others’ experiences and perspectives with you to give you an idea of the range of normal. A huge thank you to all the people willing to share their own experiences with labor contractions!

Braxton Hicks Contractions

These contractions are not labor. They’re a normal part of pregnancy. Some people don’t feel them at all. Others describe them like this:

  • Braxton hicks is tightening for me, barely slows me down. Not painful, may not even notice when they happen. M.W.
  • Braxton Hicks felt like the baby was stretching. T.K.
  • BH felt to me mostly like a hardening of my belly. I only felt them there. K.S.
  • Braxton-Hicks contractions just feel like a tightening of my abdominal muscles. Very easy to ignore when doing the daily routine things that need to be done. A.R.B.
  • BH for me- I couldn’t feel them internally really, just would notice my belly got super hard/firm to the touch. Not painful at all. A. C.
  • I knew they were Braxton Hicks because I could sleep through them. A. E.
  • Braxton hicks feel more like tightness that can kind of take my breath away, but isn’t necessarily painful. J.B.
  • Just flexing in my stomach. Tightening and hardening. I had then every 5 minutes from 20 weeks on and it was exhausting. A.M.

Early Labor Contractions

  • period cramps on top of a Braxton-Hicks M.L.
  • Regular contractions feel like your uterus is actively pushing down the baby, like your whole mid-section is in one large period cramp. Those are just the beginning contractions. C. S.
  • Contractions in early labor are similar to Braxton-Hicks with the addition of cramping in the belly and back. Cramping is less easy to ignore than Braxton-Hicks. A.R.B.
  • They didn’t feel like menstrual cramps. Menstrual cramps are so minor compared to labor! The difference is pain and pressure. A.M.
  • Regular contractions even in early labor felt not just like hardening but pressure as well. They felt like a wave from the top of my uterus to the tops of my thighs and around my back. With all 3 of my babies I knew almost immediately the difference. Wave of pressure and gradual release of pressure is the best way I can explain it. K.S.
  • Real contractions started out like period cramps, but once I was in active labor, they felt like an extremely painful charley horse. T.K.
  • Back labor felt like someone had stuck a fork in my kidney. With each contraction, the fork would twist and twist like twirling spaghetti, stretching my muscles and bones. At the end of the contraction, someone would untwist the forks. Regular contractions were so much nicer! They just felt like an involuntary situp. A.H.
  • It felt like gas. Like you really need to fart and it just won’t come. J.F.
  • Sometimes they started at the base of the vagina and moved up into my uterus. Sometimes I felt it in my back. K.S.

Later in Labor Contractions

As labor progresses, contractions feel like a wave from the tops of my thighs that rolls all the way up to the top of my belly, and continue to become more powerfully pushing/contracting until they’re all on top of each other right before baby comes.

  • The only pain I remember feeling in either labor was in my cervix and lower back. The contractions are INTENSE, but not painful. A.R.B.
  • In active labor, those contractions take your entire body and make you move in ways you didn’t decide to in your own mind. It’s like a big Charley horse in your entire middle, back and front. And though they start out intense, they do slowly fade away. But then the next one starts. C.S.
  • The muscles would tense up so tightly I remember telling the nurses I felt like my belly was going to pop! A.H.
  • Active labor contractions – waves of tightening that had a build up, a peak, and a softening phase. They weren’t painful, but intense. Instinct was to Low moan and sway through them. A.C.
  • Contractions feel similar to when you do a whole bunch of crunches and your muscles don’t relax for a second when you stop– except contractions are deeper and more all-encompassing, but less sharp and hot. More deep and purposeful. J.B.
  • I tried really hard with my last delivery to capture a description of that feeling. Here’s what came to me: a contraction began like the spark of a flame which grew more intense and much warmer before it faded and subsided. While there was a sensation of growing heat, there was no feeling of burning to cause a hot pain. A.B.R.
    active labor: intense tightening with cervical stretching and almost like a pinchy feeling down on the cervix; late/transition: more of the same, but MORE intense, big waves that almost take your breath away it seems, hard work to keep the breath even and enough, lots of opening sensations that can hurt like the dickens at times. M.L.

Pushing Contractions

  • Contractions produce the urge to push the baby out M.L.
  • Wave of pressure and gradual release of pressure is the best way I can explain it. K.S.
  • Instincts took over, and my body pushed for me! A.M.
  • I never felt anything with my medicated births, but with my unmedicated birth, I remember the feeling of trying to back up to get away from the pressure. The contraction pain floated away as I was feeling the stretching ring of fire. A.H.
  • I feel like it’s something I am in control of, but also not in control of. K.S.

As you can see, everyone experiences and describes contractions differently. All of them are the truth, and as much as I would like to be able to tell you how YOU will experience contractions, I really can’t!