What Do Labor Contractions Really Feel Like?

Updated: January 14, 2021
Some women sail through labor contractions not even knowing if they are even in labor feeling barely a cramp and others describe it as the most painful experience of their lives thus the term labor pains. So, what can you expect?
How Contractions Feel

Most women do feel contractions during labor, and they try to explain it to friends, family, husbands, and partners the best they can, but we want the details of what they really feel like especially first time moms! Here, we’ll cover what a contraction is, the three different types of contractions you’ll likely experience including how to tell if you're in false labor, plus real moms will describe in the best way possible what a labor contraction really feels like so you’ll be ready to face labor like a champ!

More: Will My Pregnancy Be Like My Mom’s?

What is a Contraction?

A contraction is the rhythmic shortening of the uterine muscle which constricts and causes the uterus to tighten and the cervix to dilate with the ultimate goal of pushing the baby down the birth canal and into your waiting arms!

There are three types of contractions that you may experience. Below, we’re breaking down what they are and how they feel according to real moms.

1. Braxton Hicks Contractions

Braxton Hicks

Labor is the natural process that brings your long-awaited baby into the world but before the big day, many moms experience third trimester pre-labor contractions called Braxton Hicks contractions. These are practice contractions (compared with real contractions )that prepare the muscles of the uterus for labor and birth and are most common in the last trimester of pregnancy. Because your uterus will be doing so much hard work during labor, these contractions are like prepping for game day by tightening and softening. These contractions don't have a regular pattern and shouldn't hurt or feel like period cramps. Moving into a different position and staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water can help stop Braxton Hicks.

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.

More: Signs of Labor

2. Early Labor Contractions

Early Labor

If Braxton Hicks can be described as the uterine muscle flexing and relaxing, real labor contractions are a totally different experience. For one, they don’t go away and will build in intensity, speed, and pain as labor progresses and your cervix starts the dilation and effacement or thinning. 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 stomachache 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.

More: The Stages of Labor

3. Active Labor Contractions

Active Labor

As labor progresses 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.

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.

"Waves of increasing abdominal intense Charlie Horses." Jodi, mom of three.

"When they finally started to be the painful (cervix changing) contractions they felt like burning, wrapping around to my lower back, very much 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.

"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 was also so amazing to experience because I was fully aware this was my body's own force working to bring the baby earth side. 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 just got 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 coming on beginning in my uterus and quickly spreading 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 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 has 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! My second, 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 was releasing water every few minutes with each contraction. He was born right after I got to the hospital." Gina, mom of two.

Looking for more insight into your pregnancy? Check out our Day-by-Day Pregnancy Tracker.

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About the author
Laura Richards

Laura Richards is a writer, journalist, communications, brand, and PR specialist with 20+ years of experience. She’s also a mother of four so understands the joys and struggles of parenting.