What are contractions?
Contractions are a normal part of pregnancy and occur when the uterine muscle tightens and flexes, just like flexing any other muscle. In the end, uterine muscle contractions are what will help you in labor, pushing your baby down the birth canal and out into the world (woohoo!). But to many, decoding the activity of the uterine muscle can be confusing, especially when it comes to the telling the difference between non-labor and labor contractions. Even within those categories, there are still different types of contractions to prepare for.
Let’s break down six types of contractions you can to expect to feel before, during, and after labor.
The six types of contractions you may experience.
1. 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.
2. 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.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
Enjoy those newborn snuggles. You certainly earned them!