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What Does a Contraction Feel Like? Ask This Contraction Monitor!

Is this a contraction?

Before you feel that first pang, you may catch yourself wondering “What does a contraction feel like?” More likely, you’ll fall into the category of wondering whether every little sensation you feel is a contraction or just one of the other strange goings-on in your ever-changing body. You are not alone. It’s totally normal to wonder “Is this a contraction?”

To back this claim of normalcy, I did some very unscientific research on the popularity of this question (thank you, Dr. Google.) According to Google search traffic, one of the more popular search terms in pregnancy is “Braxton Hicks” (the non-labor contractions that can start as early as the second trimester). This term alone garners over 135,000 searches per month. We can safely assume that this pretty specific search term is typed by a certain population, likely pregnant women, unlike say, the 165,000 monthly searches for “cat videos”. Add this to the search traffic for “what does a contraction feel like” (10,000) and “am I in labor” (2,500) and it appears that there remains some confusion and interest for definition around this stage of pregnancy.


It’s totally normal to wonder “Is this a contraction?”


It’s not just Dr. Google. Whenever I speak to birth educators, this sentiment holds up:

“I’ve been in this business a long time. And, when I’m teaching, everyone has contractions, but they’re not always feeling them. I’ve had several times when I’ll be talking about contractions and they don’t even know they are having them. I’ve had people in labor in my class!”

 —  Patricia, Certified Childbirth Educator

Why is there so much confusion around contractions?

Often this question is posed to a doctor, birth educator, friend, family member, random stranger who recently birthed (you get the picture). And the response comes back “it starts like this” or “it feels like that”. From there, the one who actually feels the feeling, must link sensation to description. Yes, its strangest matching game you’ve ever played.

When I googled “What does a contraction feel like?” this result popped up:

“Early contractions may feel like period pain. You may have cramps or backache, or both. Or you may just have aching or heaviness in the lower part of your tummy. You may feel the need to poo or just feel uncomfortable, and not be able to pin down why.” —BabyCenter


I don’t know about you, but that answer feels useless to me. Wait to feel something that you might “not be able to pin down”? Um, thanks but no thanks.

Is there a way to get a more straightforward answer?

Option A – The good ‘ol toco – the contraction monitor in the hospital

Healthcare professionals monitor contractions by either putting their hand on the stomach to sense the tensing of the muscles or by hooking up the tocodynamometer. The tocodynamometer (affectionately called “toco” for short) measures the pressure changes at the level of the belly surface.

But this measurement technique has interesting limitations, as patent dating back to 1974 explains:

“This invention relates to measurement of uterine contractions or other biological phenomena involving displacement of an external body surface.”

Sure, the toco can tell you if that weird sensation is a contraction but other things going on in the body, like gastrointestinal activity, might also register as a contraction. Plus—yes, you read that right—this patent dates back to 1974. The same contraction monitor that our mothers used when they birthed us is used to birth our babies today. What other field of medicine still relies on technology that dates back over 40 years?


Why are we still relying on old technology?


Add in the fact that the toco is only available at the hospital. Not a problem if you don’t mind heading to the hospital for a few hours and have a good insurance plan that covers this visit. However, getting a definitive answer to a seemingly simple question becomes especially problematic for women living in rural parts of the United States. As a 2014 policy brief noted, only 20% of rural counties even have OB/GYN services.

Option B – Answer that “is this a contraction?” question from the comfort of home.

Bloomlife’s contraction monitor has the only true yes or no answer that you can get at home. With real-time feedback you can finally learn what contractions feel like to you. A convenient second opinion in the palm of your hand.

More important, Bloomlife measures the electrical activity of the uterine muscle flexing rather than just the changes at the surface of the skin. While technology available in most hospitals, the toco, measures the effect of a contraction, Bloomlife measures the cause. Intestinal gas bubbles look a whole lot different to Bloomlife enabling a more accurate view.

To learn more about if Bloomlife is right for you, click here.

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Molly Dickens, PhD

About Molly

Molly has her PhD in Physiology and spent over a decade as an academic research scientist slightly obsessed with the colliding worlds of brain science, hormones, stress and the reproductive system. Nowadays she heads up Content and Community at Bloomlife and edits Preg U. Science is still her jam and she can't help but continue to dive into the research world to find interesting bits about pregnancy and parenting.


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