What Does a Contraction Feel Like?

Natural childbirth is the best choice for you and your baby… but pain is scary! What does a contraction feel like?

Find out what’s normal, what to expect, and how you can handle contractions and pain during your baby’s birth (it’s an event you want to remember – even if it hurts).

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What Do Contractions Feel Like?

Many women find contractions are the hardest part of giving birth. They describe contractions in a number of ways:

  • Like strong menstrual cramps (they can start off like light menstrual cramps)
  • Like a tightening across the back and around the belly
  • Like a dull backache (this may throw you off, since it’s in your back, not your belly!)
  • Throbbing and aching
  • Sharp, pulling feelings
  • Like leg cramps, or a “charlie horse”
  • Waves of pressure
  • Generally the build up to a “peak” and then gradually fade away

Women experience contractions differently. Some find them very easy to handle, some find them challenging, and some find them very painful. Moms who have experienced pain before (kidney stones, ruptured appendix, ovarian cysts, broken arms, etc.) generally rate the pain as less than moms who haven’t had these experiences.

Each contraction brings you closer and closer to meeting your baby. Keep this in mind – you never have to do the last one again!

Great Pregnancy Tip:
Be grateful for being pregnant and the experience of laboring, even when you’re tired of them!! Make gratefulness an attitude in your daily life. It makes pregnancy and childbirth easier, plus it’s a great habit for the sometimes challenging job of being a mom ;)

Your labor assistants can remind you that each contraction has a purpose – to open you up, to bring you one step closer to your baby.

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Changing your perception of contractions now will help you during labor. See each one as something to go up and through, one step closer to your baby.  Don’t think about the pain – think about how you’re working with your baby to move him or her down and out.

Pain Perception

The way you think of labor pain changes how you deal with it.

You usually try to flee from pain – it’s a sign that something is wrong. But the pain you may feel during your natural child birth is a different kind of pain. It’s a pain that invites you to go deeper and embrace your baby’s work to be born.

Leading midwife Ina May Gaskin encourages women to think of contractions as “interesting sensations that require your complete attention” rather than as “uterine contractions.” It’s true that childbirth can be painful – but don’t be scared of it.

Studies show that women’s expectations of labor pain match their experience. In other words if you expect labor to be horribly painful and you won’t be able to handle it, you probably won’t be able to.

If you realize it may be uncomfortable (even painful), but you can handle it for the time it takes you to birth your baby, then you’ll be able to.

Most women in the modern world expect child birth to be very painful and expect to need medication – and they do. In other cultures around the world, women don’t perceive child birth as such a big deal and don’t expect medication. It’s women’s work and they’ll do it without medication.

There are women who give birth in pleasure. Ecstatic birth is a reality. Some women describe childbirth, or just part of their labor, as being an orgasmic experience. It’s a real possibility. During my second birth there was a point where I sat on the edge of my bed, just feeling my body open up – I felt no pain. I wouldn’t describe it as “orgasmic” or anything, but it was an awesome sensation and it’s a half hour I will never forget :)

It may be taboo to talk about in many cultures, but it’s OK to enjoy your birth.

Cultural conditioning plays a big part in the way you perceive the work of labor. Educate yourself and research all you can about labor and birth. The best thing you can do is educate yourself and make your birth plans consciously.

But What if it Hurts? What if I Really Am Scared?

Okay, the reality is childbirth usually hurts. Some women have pain-free births, but most feel some pain. Can you still have a great birth experience?

All of my labors have had pain. I feel like all of my births were good births (and all natural labors), but my fourth, fifth, and sixth babies were really great experiences. Why were their births different?

With Galen, Honor, and Corwin I figured out that it really didn’t matter how much childbirth hurts. It didn’t really matter if I was a little scared of the pain (and yes, even after all my babies, the thought of labor is still a little scary).

I did work through my biggest fears (like worry about a c-section). But the biggest change for me was realizing I could practice birth skills before labor — skills that would help me handle labor and birth (even if it hurt)!

You can learn the same skills (believe me, I’m not remarkable in any way). These skills work together with what you’ve learned in your childbirth classes or through your pregnancy and birth books. They help you to help your baby’s efforts to be born. Imagine knowing how to get your labor going again, even if it seems “stalled.” Imagine knowing how to handle a contraction confidently, even if it’s painful. Imagine knowing that you can calm down and get in control again, even if you lose it during one of your contractions!

Childbirth uses a specific set of skills that you learn (just like you learn to drive a car). I’ve pulled together information on skills for childbirth, having a healthy pregnancy (so you have an easier labor), and birth choices (so you have a safe, smooth birth) in my MamaBaby Birthing course – click here to get more info.

Related Articles

  • Staying Comfortable and Keeping Labor Moving Smoothly
  • Quick Pain Relief Checklist
  • Birth Stories – reading birth stories is a great way to hear how other moms handled contractions during labor
  • Photo by Dean Johnson