Labor Contractions Or Braxton Hicks? We Ask Experts and Moms
The experience of giving birth and labor is different for all women. While we can make some generalizations, some women handle labor contractions better than others. Some women are unaware that labor has begun, while other women experience hours and hours of painful contractions and intense abdominal pain before giving birth.
More: What do Labor Contractions Really Feel Like?
If this is your first pregnancy, you are likely wondering how you will be able to tell when it is the real deal versus a false alarm? I was one of the few women who barely experienced contractions until I was induced. My water broke with my first son after only a few slight pangs and cramps the day before. My second son was late, and I ended up being induced to start labor. But, when those regular contractions started, there was no mistaking them for what they were!
If you are a first-time parent, you’ve come to the right place! We will cover what a contraction is and could possibly feel like, false labor versus real labor, what Braxton Hicks contractions are, plus some info and facts about the stages of labor from Ob-Gyns and other moms about what to expect as you near your due date.
What is a Contraction?
A contraction is the rhythmic shortening and tightening of the uterine muscles. The tightening causes the uterus to constrict and the cervix to dilate. During a contraction, pregnant women will feel their abdomen become hard and then soften again between contractions. All this back and forth tightening, albeit uncomfortable and even painful, serves the purpose of getting the baby into position for labor and delivery.
There are three types of contractions that you may experience. Below, we’re breaking down the different types of contractions and how they feel according to real-life accounts.
1. Braxton Hicks Contractions
Labor is the natural process that brings your long-awaited baby into the world, but before labor begins, many experience third-trimester pre-labor contractions called Braxton Hicks contractions. These are practice contractions that are your body’s way of preparing the uterus for labor and birth. They are most common in the last trimester of pregnancy. They are called practice contractions because they do not cause dilation and don't have a regular pattern. While Braxton Hicks contractions shouldn’t hurt, they can be irksome and uncomfortable. However, if you change positions and drink some water, it can help stop them if they don’t taper off on their own.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say that women can experience false labor contractions several weeks before their due date, even as early as their second trimester and are more likely to happen at the end of the day.
What Braxton Hicks contractions feel like:
Many moms say Braxton Hicks feel like a tight band around their belly that slowly releases and relaxes. Other moms report that Braxton Hicks feel like the whole front of their belly hardens then softens. Typically, these practice contractions occur without the pain of a real labor contraction and should come and go. The same can be said for false labor but as always, call your health care provider for medical advice if you have any concerns or if you experience prolonged cramping or preterm labor contractions that don’t stop.
2. Early Labor Contractions
Now that you have an idea of what Braxton Hicks contractions feel like, we can compare them to the real deal. The most significant difference is that true labor contractions don’t go away and will build in intensity, speed, and pain. In addition to the tightening of your abdomen, many women experience back pain when having a contraction.
As labor progresses and your cervix starts the dilation and effacement or thinning, it is possible your amniotic fluid sack will break; this is what women refer to as you water breaking. However, unlike what seems to happen on TV and in the movies, a woman's water rarely breaks all of a sudden in a giant gush while waiting in line to buy groceries. Truthfully, more often than not, your water won’t break until you’re already at the hospital, but it is possible to happen without notice (mine broke while sleeping, and I didn’t even know!)
True labor contractions shorten, constrict, and cause the uterus to become tighter. Women often report that initial labor contractions feel like strong menstrual cramps or a dull backache. During early labor, other signals that this is the real thing are the loss of the mucus plug or bloody show, your water breaking either by a slow trickle or a huge gush and the regular intervals of contractions.
What Early Labor Contractions feel like: The following moms describe their early labor contractions.
"The contractions felt like very heavy menstrual cramps.” Susan, mom of one.
"Early on, they felt like PMS cramps, but then they felt like steel bands being squeezed around my lower abdomen." Lisa, mom of two.
"Contractions in early labor felt like a radiating heat starting in my back.” Anastasia, mom of four.
"I personally thought that with twins, I had a stomach ache after eating bologna and chocolate glazed cheesecakes together, and that was the day before their due date. It felt like they were pushing from the sides." Maya, mom of three.
3. Active Labor Contractions
The signs of labor are when your contractions become more regular, noticeable, and painful. There’s a beginning, middle, and end to each labor contraction similar to a roller coaster. You can feel the beginning of a contraction as it starts to increase, peak, then decrease, and the timing becomes more consistent. It's during active labor that many women opt for an epidural or other pain relief. Some moms need their support person most during this phase of labor, whether it's a doula or partner, and they may need to shift positions by using a birthing ball or warm tub to help ease labor pains.
What Active Labor Contractions feel like: These moms describe their active labor contractions.
"Contractions felt like intense period-like cramps that came on slowly overnight, then got exponentially worse suddenly. They were like a stabbing sensation in my lower belly!" Talene, mom of one.
"[Contractions were] waves of increasing abdominal Charlie Horses." Jodi, mom of three.
"When I finally started to have painful (cervix changing) contractions, they felt like burning, wrapping around to my lower back. It was like the worst possible menstrual cramps you could imagine. The kind that used to make me sick to my stomach in high school. At first, it made me laugh thinking that the ones I thought I was having weeks leading up to labor were, in fact, nothing at all." Darlene, three kids.
"Waves of intense menstrual cramps with little breaks in between until the very, very end (transition) when there is no break or relief, but then the baby is born. It was like that for all five kids." Jeanne, mom of five.
"It was thunder rolling through my body." Stacey, mom of three.
"My labor contractions were painful, but what I remember so vividly is how huge and powerful and all-consuming they were. Every bit of my mind and body was riding a huge tidal wave that was out of my control entirely. But it was also so amazing to experience because I was fully aware this was my body's own force working to bring the baby earthside. Don't get me wrong. They hurt like hell, but their power is what sticks with me more than the pain for some reason." Nicole, mom of two.
"The contractions felt like very heavy menstrual cramps. I thought of it as a beautiful pain in the sense that every time I was contracting, my body was hugging me and bringing him to me." Susan, mom of one.
"Contractions with baby number one felt distinctly like a fireball being jet-propelled to try to escape out of my back. With baby number two, I didn't get any vivid visual or anything like that, but for a couple hours, before the baby was born, the contractions felt like the most horrendous, unbelievable pressure. Pressure like I didn't even know pressure that strong could exist." Lindsey, mom of two.
"To me, contractions felt like every nerve ending in my whole body was being electrocuted. The pain begins in my uterus and quickly spreads to every inch of my body. Any movement of any inch of my body, even breathing during a contraction, would shoot even more unimaginable pain to my uterus. It was to the point I thought I was going to pass out, or at least hoped I would, just so I could feel instant relief and not have to wait for the pain to recede." Randi, mom of one.
"With my first child, I had a few shooting pains in my lower back, zero typical stomach area pain. I could feel my stomach getting hard with my fingertips, but no pain whatsoever, and she was born in the ER as she came so quickly! With my second birth, I came home from work and just felt off. I felt tired, more tired than usual. I laid down for a couple minutes when I got home, and as soon as I stood up, my water broke. I still had no pain, just releasing water every few minutes with each contraction. He was born right after I got to the hospital." Gina, mom of two.
Every woman’s labor feels different, but it's important to recognize the signs and symptoms of labor to prepare for birth. Understanding the difference between real and false contractions can help you have less anxiety about giving birth and understand what to expect.
For more information on the signs and stages of labor, see our article on: When You Should Go to the Hospital before giving birth.
- webmd.com. Signs of Labor. 2023.
- acog.org. How to Tell When Labor Begins. 2020.
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About L. Elizabeth Forry
L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with 15 years of classroom experience.