Are you pregnant and not sure what to expect from labor pains? Here are stories from real moms describing how contractions felt during that intense time!
What Does a Contraction Feel Like?
I think one of the things I worried most about giving birth was what the pain would be like.
I had heard so many different stories, so I just wasn’t sure what it would be like for me…and there is really no way to know! I was prepared for labor and delivery as much as I could, but I was so anxious about what it would actually feel like.
My labor pain was different with both of my births as well. With Jack, I really only experienced the beginning pain because I got an epidural right away.
However, with Oliver, they sent me home during the early stages (despite my contractions only being about two minutes apart), and I did not want to go back until I was sure. And at that point, I was in so much pain, I wasn’t sure I could bare it!
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So I thought it might be helpful to answer the question many pregnant women have on their mind:
What do contractions feel like?
It’s so hard to know – especially when you are first starting to contract. I know I didn’t know I was having contractions in the beginning!
When I was pregnant with Oliver, I had an ECV done. Afterward, they told me I was contracting pretty regularly, but I had zero idea!
I wish that I’d had the Bloom contraction monitor at that time, and honestly, throughout the latter part of both my pregnancies. If you’ve never heard of Bloom, it’s a smart, pregnancy wearable that helps you to understand your body and how it’s contracting just a little bit easier. My sister-in-law used and loved it. You can get 10% off the weekly fee using the code CLARKS10.
Anyways, first I will share my experience, and then I will share quotes from real moms from all across the world.
For me, early labor contractions just felt like I had a really bad stomachache. I kept going to the bathroom because I felt like I had to go, but I never did. With Jack, I honestly didn’t think this was the beginning of labor – I thought I had just eaten something bad at Red Robin!
However, I quickly noticed these pangs of pain were coming at oddly regular intervals…and they started to feel more like intense menstrual cramps.
This is also how it started with Oliver. However, as I laid in bed at home, the intensity of the pain got even more.
By the time we were on the way to the hospital, the way I could best describe it was someone putting a knife in my abdomen and twisting it around. The pressure would build up more and more until it peaked, and then it would gradually subside.
Let’s just say the epidural was very much welcomed at that point – I was so not prepared for natural labor – despite a nurse telling me, “Wow, you’re really good at this. You should teach pain management courses!” Ha. No.
The silence was my only way of coping, and I truly felt like I was going to die (I later found out my placenta was starting to abrupt the whole time, which can apparently cause more pain. That’s what I tell myself at least..ha!”
Where Do You Feel Contractions?
Contractions are obviously concentrated in the abdomen – however, you can feel the effects all over your body.
- Many people will feel contractions that start with the tightening of their lower abdomen, but they may radiate to other places
- Back pain is very common with labor contractions, especially with certain positions the baby might be in. Many people believe that back labor is some of the worst.
- Many women experience pain or pressure in their pelvis and on their cervix. Vaginal pressure is to be expected as well.
And now, here are the experiences of other mamas! These were all gathered from my Breastfeeding Mama’s Support Tribe on Facebook (we have a group for pregnancy and postpartum support as well) and from this post on my Bumps and Baby Instagram page.
What Does Back Labor Feel Like?
Before I had my kids, I remember hearing people talk about back labor and how painful it was.
Personally, I never really experienced back labor (at least not before I got an epidural), so I can’t really describe my own experience with this.
However, from what I’ve heard from others and from my own research back labor is typically pain in the lower back that doesn’t ease up. With normal contractions, you will feel some relief in between contractions, however, back labor is pretty constant.
It happens in about 25% of women, so you have a 1 in 4 chance of experiencing it yourself (so lucky).
What is the cause of back labor? In most situations, it’s because your baby is “sunny side up), which means our baby’s head is head down (instead of breech), but the baby is facing your stomach instead of your back.
This causes the baby to push his head onto your tailbone and spine, which causes this very uncomfortable kind of labor.
How do Contractions Feel? Real Labor Stories.
“Early labor: it just feels like your abdomen is tightening and kinda feels like mild cramps. Active labor: your whole abdomen and back tense up and it’s pretty uncomfortable (I had back labor so I mainly had a ton of back pain) Hard labor: your back hurts really badly and it feels like the worst cramps you could possibly imagine Actually pushing: it’s a relief from the pain of the contractions and it burns… A lot.” – Micaela
“Not as bad as I expected. 23 hours and I never cried from contraction pain!” – Faith
“I described mine as period cramps.” – Kayla
“I had a natural birth and went from 3-9-1/2cm in like 5 mins so I didn’t get a chance to ‘get used to’ the pain but the pushing is definitely a relief from the contractions. That’s the “easy part”.” – Debra
“Early Labour is random shooting pains that make you wonder if it’s Labour lol active Labour is when u get to that point where you know if you don’t get to the hospital you won’t make it hahaha that’s what it was like for me x” – Candice
“I don’t feel like I got to experience what going in to labor felt like along with normal contractions. I was induced at 37wks because I had next to no amniotic fluid left, but my cervix wasn’t even softened yet. So while they softened my cervix I had like mild cramps but mostly vaginal from them prying around way up there.
Then once they were able to give me Pitocin my contractions literally went from 0 to 1 million within 30 min. I was not ready for that! For me, it felt like someone was using my lower abdomen to wash clothes the old-fashioned way. Scrub furiously on the washboard then wringing it out like there’s no tomorrow. And I wish I could say it was every 5 or whatever min apart and they slowly got closer and closer together, no. 1-2 min apart from the time the Pitocin kicked in.
Now, I would have given anything to go into natural labor if I would have known what it was going to be like to be induced (not like I had a choice though). But every time I see someone asking or wanting to be induced I shiver with the memory.” – Alaina
“Mild cramping that slowly progresses to a stronger deep intermittent pressure/pain as all your core muscles contract.” – Tara
“Early labor was like period cramps that came and went…active labor was more like bad tummy virus cramping (in my abdomen, of course) and deep aching in my lower back, tailbone, and pelvis. I think it bears reminding that if you are not having the baby too early, you are SO HAPPY to get the show on the road, you don’t mind the pain most of the time – at least, that’s how I felt! ?” – Stephanie
“I describe it as the pain you feel when you’re dating someone for the first time and hold in your farts for too long ” – Dee
“Waves of tightness and cramping, increasing in intensity until the baby is born. I also got the shakes really bad during active labor. My whole body shook uncontrollably.” – Devyn
“Like I had diarrhea and had to poop right that second. Which I did with all early contractions and then with some of them later on.” – Stephanie
“Early labor is like bad menstrual cramps
I had Pitocin both times so my description of end labor might not be accurate ??:” – Trista
“Early labor felt like severe stomach pains like I had eaten something bad and it made my stomach cramp and need to go to the bathroom (I got up twice trying to before I realized this was labor). Mine pretty much started and stayed 2 mins apart and I never had a break so it was an intense 13 hours. Late labor just left like my whole stomach area seizing up with gut pain. It was difficult to describe right after and looking back it’s still hard to describe.” – Rachel
“Less than period cramps like a belly ache… time and see how far apart and if exactly the same times it’s them… mine where 6 min then water broke and 1min apart!” – Jessica
“Less than period cramps like a belly ache… time and see how far apart and if exactly the same times it’s them… mine where 6 min then water broke and 1min apart!” – Caresha
“I had coupling contractions for 3 days before my cervix would fully dilate. I was at 2 the whole 3 days with the double contractions being 5-7 minutes apart the entire time. It was miserable pain. It felt like the worst menstrual cramps you could possibly have. I was so relieved when I finally dilated enough to get the epidural! After that, it was a walk in the park!” – Karalyn
“Early labor felt like menstrual cramping. Active labor felt like my insides were trying to get out (which I guess is pretty accurate!) – it was much more intense than I had imagined so I didn’t handle it well. I wish I had been more informed!” – Ashley
“Early ones were fine, just tightenings really, wouldn’t say major pain, then when active labor kicked in I couldn’t breathe, very intense I felt them a lot in my back too and I felt like someone was trying to rip me open down there haha! I managed ok though and he came out in an hour so cannot complain! If I had to experience that pain for longer I would have easily had all the drugs in the world x.” – Gemma
“I had an induction the first time and a natural home birth the second time: contractions during the induction felt incredibly intense like a nutcracker had been placed inside me and was pushing and cracking everything outwards. The second labor was much easier as I used hypnobirthing – contractions started out as slight cramps then progressed to feeling like ‘stings’ through my back and stomach. They were a bit uncomfortable rather than painful. They only became intense during the final hour when I was pushing. During that time, the contractions felt a very intense pulse and push/shove ‘downwards’ – like every single muscle was cramping and spasming down. The second labor was a fantastic experience and I look back on it very fondly. All I wish for my induction is that I had had the epidural sooner!” – Linda
“I had an emergency c-section the first time about 5 minutes after labor started so I didn’t really experience much. My second was a scheduled C-section so zero labor. The 3rd I had a c-section scheduled for 39 weeks but went into labor at 36. I experienced about 6 hours of steady and strong contractions before they realized they couldn’t stop it and did the c-section. Those 6 hours gave me so much respect for all the mamas who have natural deliveries.” – Kristin
“Like a cactus up my a** and a squirrel with sharp nails in my uterus trying to get a peanut?” – Melanie
“At first it doesn’t seem that bad. They were far enough apart that the pain was manageable. My contractions went from 20 min apart to 15 min while waiting to hear back from my doctor. Then dropped to less than 5 min while on the phone with her. The pain was terrible and I would twist and turn. I got an epidural but my little one came before it took full effect (and wasn’t done properly, only half my body went numb). Even when the contractions were seconds apart, during those seconds it was enough relief to make you feel you can handle it. Until another one comes along and you think you’ll be split into two. Then relief… And repeat. The relief in between is what I tried to focus on. The contractions don’t last forever!” – Brett
“Like death ? come in intense surges of excruciating pain and you can’t move. They make you make noises you’ve never made before. At first they’re not so bad and quite funny but that doesn’t last for long!” – Kel
“Mine were mostly in my lower back, and even though I had an #epidural fairly early on, I could still feel them, especially during active labor when the drip slows down. The pain went from dull to lightning bolt-sharp, and can probably be compared to menstrual cramps x 1,000. I also want to point out that you’ll feel eerily similar pain for a couple of days post-labor!!! I couldn’t believe how shocking the cramping in my lower back and abdomen was: like reliving a nightmare! BUT!!! ALL WORTH IT!” – Name unknown (from Instagram):
Here are some additional articles to help you prepare for labor:
- Three Classes to Take During Pregnancy
- Decisions to Make Before Giving Birth
- Top Common Labor and Delivery Fears
Originally posted in October 2017; updated December 2018.