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Six Types of Contractions: What to Really Expect Before, During and After Labor

At some point, you are going to experience contractions. In the end, contractions are what causes the baby to be born (woohoo!). But to many, decoding the activity of that little baby-making muscle called the uterus is confusing, especially when it comes to the decoding the difference between the first two types of contractions below. So what can you expect to feel, before, during, and after labor?

 

Here are Six Types of Contractions you may experience.

 

Braxton Hicks:

Your everyday contraction.

Named after an English doctor, Braxton Hicks contractions are essentially “warm up” contractions. They are totally normal and usually start in the second trimester. Often you will feel a quick hardening or tightening of the uterus, usually felt in the front. Dehydration or exertion can bring them on. You may feel more of them at night, especially after a long day.

Just a gentle reminder again, these little twinges are normal and no reason to grab the hospital bag and run out the door.

Types of contractions - Braxton Hicks

 

Early labor contractions:

Go time… but not quite yet.

These contractions may be slightly uncomfortable and feel like mild to moderate menstrual cramps. Usually, they’re intermittent and variable, seven to ten or even twenty or more minutes apart. You may be able to sleep or do other activities while experiencing them.  To help figure out if you’re experiencing early labor contractions or Braxton Hicks, you can start timing contractions and look at the pattern. A simple timer app or an automated tracker, like Bloomlife, can help you see changes in contraction patterns.

When you are in early labor, you should aim to stay home as long as possible. Ask your partner to help you create a space to rest through early labor, with low lights and a calm vibe. If that’s not your thing, trying to distract yourself with other activities (like walking, cooking, or watching a favorite TV show or movie) is a good idea, too.

Types of contractions - early labor

 

Active labor contractions:

Now it’s go time.

Things are picking up in active labor, with contractions coming closer together, from about 4-5 minutes apart and lasting around 30 seconds to a minute. This is usually when your doctor or midwife suggests it is a good time to head to your chosen place of birth—when contractions are strong, regular, and progressing (getting closer together). Most people experience these types of contractions as painful, in both the front and back of the uterus.

You may need more emotional reassurance or help with comfort measures during this time.

Types of contractions - active labor

 

Transition contractions:

Baby on the way.

Transition is the time when the cervix changes from 8-10 centimeters. It’s often the hardest and most difficult part of labor, the time when people say “I can’t do this!”. Transition contractions are long (up to two minutes) and strong, with short breaks in between. Often, they are accompanied by large amounts of pressure in the vagina and rectum. During transition, you may experience shaking, vomiting, chills, and the need to vocalize. 

It’s common for people not to want to be touched or talked to very much during transition, but if you do want support, encouraging words from your partner and strong counter pressure on your back can make a difference.

Types of contractions - Transition

 

Pushing contractions:

Here comes baby!

During the pushing stage, you will most often feel a strong expulsion sensation with (and sometimes between) contractions, a feeling very much like having to poop. It’s not uncommon for contractions to slow down quite a bit during this time, allowing rest in between. Some people say it feels good or pressure-relieving to push during these contractions. 

Pushing is pretty darn physically taxing so ask for whatever support you need. Your partner can support you during pushing with lots of encouraging statements like “You’re doing great” or “You are so strong”. They could also hold one of your legs as you push. It’s also helpful to have water, cool washcloths, lip balm or other small things available to stay comfortable.

pushing contractions

 

Post-birth contractions:

Yes, uterine contractions happen after birth, too.

Not only are contractions needed to expel the placenta immediately after the baby, but the uterus will continue to contract after birth, as it returns to its pre-pregnancy size (this is called involution). Breastfeeding can trigger post-birth contractions, as well. Known as after-pains, they are at their strongest two to three days after birth. This is totally normal!

Just like during labor, stay calm and remember that you can (and will!) get through this.

Post-birth contractions

 

Yes, my dear pregnant friend, your uterine muscle is a wonder and will take you for quite a ride to bring baby into the world. Even if your partner can’t feel the sensations of pregnancy, labor, and birth, they should feel fully prepared for the journey to come.

Be sure to check out our Partner’s Guide to Preparing for Birth e-book, complete with this breakdown of the types of contractions and how your partner can best support you from start to baby.

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About Carrie

Carrie Murphy is a certified birth doula and freelance writer living in New Mexico. She has an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from New Mexico State University and is the author of two books of poetry.

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