What do contractions feel like

What do contractions feel like? Are they very painful? How can you tell Braxton Hicks contractions from real labor? Learn more here?

What are contractions anyway?

Contractions are tightening of uterine muscle fibers that occurs briefly and intermittently throughout pregnancy, and more regularly and forcefully during active labor. A contraction normally happens when the muscles of your uterus tighten up like a fist and then relax and eventually helps push your baby out. When you’re in true labor, your contractions last about 30 to 70 seconds and come about 5 to 10 minutes apart. They’re so strong that you can’t walk or talk during them.

So, what do contractions feel like

Typically, real labor contractions feel like a pain or pressure that starts in the back and moves to the front of your lower abdomen. Unlike the ebb and flow of Braxton Hicks, true labor contractions feel steadily more intense over time. During true labor contractions your belly will tighten and feel very hard. Some moms-to-be liken these contractions to menstrual cramps.

That being said, it’s difficult to predict or describe what real labor contractions will feel like for you. This is partly because everyone’s experience of pain is different. For you, early contractions may feel quite painless or mild, or they may feel very strong and intense. The pain you feel can also differ from one pregnancy to the next, so if you’ve been in labor before you might experience something quite different this time around.

Real  contractions happen when your body releases a hormone called oxytocin, which stimulates your uterus to contract. They’re a signal that your body is in labor: For many women, real contractions start at around the 40th week of pregnancy however, Real contractions that begin before the 37th week can be classified as premature.

Real contractions tighten the top part of your uterus to push your baby downward into the birth canal in preparation for delivery. They also thin your cervix to help your baby get through. The feeling of a true contraction has been described as a wave. The pain starts low, rises until it peaks, and finally ebbs away.

If you touch your abdomen, it feels hard during a contraction. You can tell that you’re in true labor when the contractions are evenly spaced (for example, five minutes apart), and the time between them gets shorter and shorter (three minutes apart, then two minutes, then one). Real contractions also get more intense and painful over time.

Some signs of real contractions include;  

  • You may see a clump of pinkish or bloody mucus when you use the bathroom. 
  • You may feel like the baby has “dropped” lower in your belly.
  • You may experience fluid leaking from your vagina. This is a sign that your “water” (a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac) has broken. Intensify with activity, rather than ease up, and aren’t relieved by a change in position.
  • Become progressively more frequent, intense and generally (but not always) more regular. The contractions usually last about 30 to 70 seconds each — and although each one won’t necessarily be more painful or longer than the last, the intensity builds up as labor progresses. Likewise, the frequency doesn’t always increase in regular, even intervals, but it does increase.
  • May be accompanied by an upset stomach, cramps or diarrhea.
  • May be accompanied by a rupture of your membranes (commonly referred to as your “water breaking“). However, this only happens in about 15 percent of labors; it’s more likely that your membranes will rupture spontaneously during labor or will be ruptured artificially by your practitioner.

How to time real contractions

Once you start experiencing contractions, timing them can help indicate how your labor is progressing. Having this information can also help your healthcare provider assess how far along you are, and whether it’s time to head into the hospital or birthing center.

Timing your contractions can also help you figure out whether you are actually in labor, or simply experiencing Braxton Hicks “practice” contractions.

Here’s how to time your contractions:

  • Make a note of the time when your first contraction starts (“time” on the table).
  • Write down how long the contraction lasts (“duration”)
  • Then mark the length of time from the start of the contraction to the start of the next one (“frequency”)
  • Keep noting these times for at least an hour to see if there is a pattern, and to see if the contractions are getting closer together.

Here’s an example of what timing your contractions would look like:


Braxton-Hicks contractions are sometimes called “false labor” because they give you the false sensation that you are having real contractions. Although they can thin the cervix (the opening of the uterus) as real contractions do, Braxton-Hicks contractions won’t ultimately lead to delivery.

Braxton-Hicks contractions typically start in your third trimester of pregnancy. They’ll arrive from time to time, often in the afternoon or evening and especially after you’ve had an active day. You won’t notice any real pattern, but Braxton-Hicks contractions may come more often the closer you get to your due date.

False labor contractions are also irregular, don’t increase in severity or frequency and usually stop if you change positions. They may also be accompanied by other false labor signs. When a Braxton-Hicks contraction hits, you’ll feel a tightening in your abdomen. It’s not usually painful, but it can be.

Signs you’re having Braxton-Hicks contractions include:

  • contractions that come and go
  • contractions that don’t get stronger or closer together
  • contractions that go away when you change position or empty your bladder

How can you tell the difference?

This chart can help you tell whether you’re in real labor or just “practicing”:


Braxton-Hicks contractions

Real contractions

When do they start?

As early as the second trimester, but more often in the third trimester

After your 37th week of pregnancy (if they come earlier, this can be a sign of preterm labor)

How often do they come?

From time to time, in no regular pattern

At regular intervals, getting closer and closer together in time

How long do they last?

From less than 30 seconds to 2 minutes

From 30 to 70 seconds

How do they feel?

Like a tightening or squeezing, but not usually painful

Like a tightening or cramping that comes in waves, starting in the back and moving to the front, getting more intense and painful over time.


Your practitioner has likely told you when to call if you think you’re in labor (a good rule of thumb: when contractions are five to seven minutes apart). If you’re not sure if you’re in real labor but the contractions are coming pretty regularly, pick up the phone anyway. Just don’t wait for perfectly even intervals, which may never come.

Concerned it’s the middle of the night? Don’t feel guilty about waking your doctor — people who deliver babies for a living get plenty of 3 a.m. phone calls and are used to them.

And don’t be embarrassed if it’s a false alarm — you won’t be the first (or last) expecting mom to misjudge her labor signs. Besides, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

Your practitioner will want you to answer a few questions, not only to provide information, but also to hear the tone of your voice. As you talk through the contraction, he or she will probably be able to tell whether it’s the real thing — so don’t try to cover up the pain in the name of good phone manners.

Your provider will use all the information to decide whether you should head to the hospital or birthing center, or whether you should stay home a little longer where you may feel more comfortable and relaxed during the early stages of labor.


Be sure to call your practitioner right away and if you can’t get through, head for the hospital in the following instances:

  • Your contractions are increasingly strong but you haven’t yet reached 37 weeks; you may be experiencing preterm labor
  • Your water breaks, with or without other signs of labor
  • Your water breaks and it has a greenish-brown tint
  • You feel the umbilical cord slip into your cervix or vaginal canal, which could be cord prolapse

It’s perfectly natural to feel anxious about contractions and labor as your due date approaches. Talking to your healthcare provider or your doula about any worries you have can help put your mind at ease.

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