Find out what labour pains feel like and how contractions help to bring your baby into the world.
For many women concerns about how they will cope with labour cast a shadow over their whole pregnancy, causing them undue stress and preventing them from fully enjoying this special time. While there is no denying that some discomfort during labour is likely, there are many ways to cope with this, medically and otherwise.
Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and understanding the labour process can help you to feel more in control of your baby's arrival into the world. So, to help you feel more confident about coping with labour pains, we explain all you need to know about contractions.
What are contractions?
Contractions are the cramp-like sensations that accompany the tightening and shortening of the muscles of your womb during labour.
Initially, during the earlier part of labour, the muscles that run up and down your womb work to soften, thin and dilate (open) your cervix so that your baby's head is able to pass through. Then, during the latter part of labour, as you progress towards delivery, the muscles that run across your womb work to push your baby down and out into the world.
Contractions can best be described as coming in waves in that they begin, build in intensity, peak and then ease off. There will usually be a break after each contraction and this will give you a bit of 'downtime' before the next one begins.
What do contractions feel like?
There's no easy answer to this as the experience of contractions differs from woman to woman, from pregnancy to pregnancy and from labour stage to labour stage.
Contractions early on in labour tend to be felt as a tightening or mild cramping in the back and lower abdomen, much like period pains. These early contractions help to dilate and efface your cervix so that it can be stretched up and over your baby's head later on.
To start off with they'll be reasonably far apart - only coming on every ten minutes or so- and may be quite irregular. However, contractions will begin to take on a regular rhythm, build in intensity and become longer and closer together as your labour progresses.
Once you enter the active phase of labour, contractions will become more powerful and more intense. Any relaxation or breathing techniques you've practiced with your partner will really come into their own at this time. It's at this stage that many women choose to take advantage of the pain relief they're offered.
Gradually, your contractions will become a lot stronger and closer together until you are completely dilated and finally ready to push. Many women find contractions more manageable once they get to this stage of labour as you have a greater sense of control over the whole process and the time when you're going to meet your baby is very near.
Braxton Hicks contractions vs labour pains
Throughout your pregnancy you're likely to experience painless contractions known as Braxton Hicks
. These can easily be confused with the 'real deal' however, whereas labour pains will occur regularly and increase in frequency and intensity, Braxton Hicks will occur randomly and then subside.
While Braxton Hicks contractions are thought to strengthen the muscles of your uterus ready for labour, they don't help to dilate or efface your cervix like those that accompany real labour pains.
It is however important to be aware that Braxton Hicks can easily be confused with the signs of preterm labour. So, if you're before 37 weeks and experience more than four contractions an hour or any of the other symptoms of labour
it's important to get in contact with your healthcare provider.