What Contractions Really Feel Like, According to Moms & a Doctor

I never went into labor. I never felt a contraction. Instead, I delivered my twin babies, via scheduled C-Section, at 38 weeks. I was incredibly grateful to have healthy children, but I’ll admit that I felt a little bummed that I never had the labor experience — yes, even the contractions. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like. Of course, it’s impossible to say because every mom’s experience is unique.

“Contractions can vary in character, as anything from menstrual-like cramps to full abdominal/back pain,” confirms Lauren Hanley, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.

“The typical way of recognizing ‘true labor’ vs. ‘false labor’ is the timing of them, and that they typically get stronger over time,” Dr. Hanley adds. “The contractions tend to last 45 to 70 seconds, and the frequency is every 3 to 5 minutes. Usually, the abdomen will get very hard, although back labor can sometimes mask that symptom.”

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If you’re expecting a baby, you’re probably wondering what contractions feel like. To get a variety of perspectives, I asked some been-there, done-that moms to share how their contractions felt. Here’s what they had to say…

“When I first started having contractions, it felt like a tightening in my stomach, so I would just do some deep breathing until they were over. Once we got to the hospital though, they became more real and it was indescribable pain. I even threw up. I was lying on my side, kind of bicycling my legs. It helped for me to push my hands against my husband’s hands, as hard as I could, until the contraction was over. I definitely needed the epidural!” –Amanda U., Los Angeles

“Once my contractions kicked in, it felt like there were knives shooting into my back. I figured this had to be labor, but I didn’t feel anything in my stomach or pelvis, so I was really scared. We rushed to the hospital, and by the time we got there, I was already 9.5 cm dilated. While we waited for the epidural, my husband just rubbed my back, trying to soothe the shooting pains and spasms I was getting. It turned out that I was having back contractions, which apparently can happen. I had no pain or contractions in my stomach though. I remember praying that the epidural worked because I was convinced this pain was going to kill me during childbirth.” –Diana E., Cape Coral, Florida

“About five days past my due date, I woke up with mild cramps. Then, they got pretty intense. I would say it’s like a really monster period cramp, and mine progressed really quickly from regular cramps to intense pain, within about half an hour. I started trying to time the contractions, but they were all over the place — 32 seconds apart, then several minutes. Within an hour though, my water broke and, a few hours later, we headed to the hospital.” –Jill C., Feasterville, Pennsylvania

“A couple of days before my due date, I had strong pain and pressure in my lower pelvis, which I assumed was just what the end of pregnancy feels like, so I still went to yoga. Then, at 10 that night, I started pooping like crazy and vomiting, too. I thought I had the stomach flu! My husband Googled my symptoms and realized that I was actually in labor. By the time we got to the hospital, I was having strong contractions — they felt like period cramps, times a million, and they were really painful.” –Ali M., St. Paul, Minnesota

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“With my first pregnancy, I was with clients at an evening food tasting when I started to have contractions. They were bearable though. I made it all the way to dessert before my clients asked if something was wrong. As soon as we were done, I left for the hospital. Still, the contractions weren’t too bad and I was even able to walk around, but when the back labor started, it was horrible. Even though the epidural took the edge off, I could feel every contraction and had to rely on my breathing exercises (and my husband’s encouragement) to get through it.  With my second pregnancy, I had been cleaning and moving boxes when very mild contractions started. They felt like someone was giving me a gentle but firm squeeze. I rested and they went away. The following week, I was cleaning again, and the same thing happened. Only this time, the contractions wouldn’t stop. They started at about 6 p.m., and although I made it through dinner, by 11, I knew it was time to get to the hospital because the frequency of the contractions was escalating quickly.” –Wendy L., Toronto, Canada

“Contractions feel like the worst menstrual cramps you’ve ever had, times 10,000. They wrap around your entire core, your butt and legs, and squeeze you. And they come in waves.” –Danielle A., Palm Beach, Florida

“With my first pregnancy, I didn’t feel any contractions until around 7 centimeters, and they weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. They felt like menstrual cramps, or when I had eaten ice cream without taking my Lactaid pills. I was able to give birth to a healthy baby, without an epidural, using the breathing techniques and poses that I had learned. With my second pregnancy though, sharp pains woke me from sleep, and I felt like there was a washing machine inside my stomach.” –Tiffani G., New York, New York

“My contractions started out feeling like regular pressure from my baby being in the head down position. It felt like she was just pushing down, trying to get comfortable. I didn’t realize that I was actually going into labor. As I timed the pressure waves, I figured out that, yeah, this was labor! Ultimately, they became full-blown contractions, which felt like a super-tight squeeze of my abdomen and a super-tight pull on my pelvic floor muscles.” –Candace S., Nashville, Tennessee

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