What Does a Contraction Feel Like?

This is probably the most oft-asked question by first-time expectant moms, preceded only by “How will I know I’m in labor?” The textbook answer is something along the lines of, “The way a contraction feels differs from woman to woman, but in general, you will feel a all-over tightening of your uterus and pain or cramping that may begin in your lower back and radiate to the front of your uterus.” Of course, if you do a Google search or spend any time on an expectant moms’ web board, you’ll come across responses that range from “intense menstrual cramps” to “pressure and back pain.” Some women experience what they describe as very intense pain while others describe contractions as nothing more than dull, crampy aches. And, your experience with labor can also vary greatly from one child to another.

Having just [very] recently experienced labor and birth again for the third time (this time without any medical pain relief), I would describe a contraction in active labor as an all-encompassing kind of pain. There was the tell-tale uterine tightening, but then the sensation is something that is hard to describe — I felt it mainly in my abdomen, but it was so intense, my whole body reacted to the feeling. Since labor with my first child, I’ve always said that with a contraction, it’s as if there’s no way to escape it when it’s happening — you just have to succumb — but yet when each contraction is over, the pain relief is immediate and complete. I would describe the experience as intense and painful, but manageable. It was nothing my body couldn’t handle as long as I was free to move and do what helped me cope with the pain. Now, the minute I had to be confined to a certain area or position, it was awful! For example, the car ride to the hospital was NOT fun!

Here is how nine other women describe their contractions:

Throughout my pregnancy, the Braxton Hicks contractions felt like little charlie horses over the top of my belly. When I was in labor for my first child, I remember finally deciding to get the epidural and when the medicine started to work, it only worked for half of my body. One side was bearable while the other side felt like it was being squeezed and twisted as far as it would go. I couldn’t believe the difference. I would have preferred to have all or nothing! Also, having had three kids now, I will say that the difference between contractions with and without Pitocin is night and day.


I think contractions feel like a combination of nasty period cramps and horrible bowel movement cramps at the same time. I know they say they start in your back, but I felt like mine started everywhere at the same time.


My contractions with my second pregnancy were completely different from my first. With my first, they were the textbook example of a contraction. The pain started at my sides and worked it’s way to the middle of my stomach. They started out like pretty mild menstrual cramps and then became completely unbearable. With my second labor, I suffered from pubic symphysis dysfunction and all of my contractions started in my lower back and moved to the front of my lower abdomen and into my pubic bone. They were really severe very quickly after my water broke. And with every single one I felt the urge to push. Of course, the doctors and nurses told me not to since I was only 4 cm dilated! I labored for 36 hours! I now wonder if I should have listened to my body and pushed a little it would have went faster. Who knows. Labor is a funny thing. I just learned that every labor and pregnancy will be different!


I agree with Vanessa, contractions with Pitocin versus without it are so so different….black and white. And with my first, it was back labor so it was also totally different. They were throbbing and long and it felt like my back was going to split open. With my home birth, the contractions felt like a deep, deep ache. Deep down inside my body, almost as if the sensation of my cervix spreading combined with my son descending were like my bottom was going to fall out…but in a good way. A productive way. Thinking back, they weren’t painful as much as a feeling that snapped me into the present.


With my second, I felt only a long, long awful pain across my entire abdomen. From the outside, you could feel that my whole abdomen was rock hard and it felt like a charlie horse, only a million times worse. The pain didn’t change or come and go, just remained for hours. On the monitors, it was showing that I was contracting every two minutes when I got to the hospital, but again to me the pain and hardness never stopped and started, just constant. With my first son, the pain was fairly textbook as menstrual pains that got worse, deeper, and closer in time as labor progressed.


With each of my four births, my contractions have been different. For number one, I was induced with Pitocin. I had been planning an unmedicated birth, but was told in my childbirth education classes that it was impossible to have Pitocin without an epidural, so each contraction was a fight for the birth I wanted. Ultimately, I had an epidural that didn’t work, and I dilated completely unmedicated. The second time I was also induced with Pitocin, but was absolutely certain that I would have an unmedicated birth, so each contraction was a validation that I was strong, and could do it. With my third (I had become a doula and childbirth educator), I had absolute trust in my body, and each contraction literally felt orgasmic. They were intense, but after the peak of each one, I felt the same rush that I do after an orgasm. It was amazing! With the fourth, I was in complete denial for most of my very rapid labor, so each contraction was almost a surprise. I had intense back labor, but if I vocalized throughout the contraction it was bearable.


With my first, I felt no Braxton Hicks or at least I didn’t know what I was feeling. My labor started with what I could only describe as a “funny feeling” in my belly…I didn’t feel cramp-like sensations or hardening until later on. As I progressed, I definitely felt the tightening, hardening feeling with intense cramps but all in my abdomen area…nothing in my back. With this one, I have been having BH contractions for quite some time. They began early on for me and the sensation felt like the baby was doing a twirling or twisting motion. Eventually, I realized that they were BH contractions and felt the classic hardening, tightening in my abdomen.


With my first birth, they started out similar to menstrual cramps and gradually became more intense like extreme bowel movement cramps. It was that menstrual cramp feeling in the beginning, though, that distinguished them from the Braxton Hicks cramps I’d had through the pregnancy and let me know it was “real” labor. Once I was about halfway dilated it felt like one big constant contraction, with no rest in between, even though the monitors showed a brief break between them.

The contractions felt different with my second birth, though, and I wasn’t sure I was really in labor. They didn’t feel the same way they did the first time around, and my BH contractions had been so intense and uncomfortable (painful, not just the tightening feeling) the last month or two of my pregnancy, that I constantly felt like I was in early labor. My baby was “sunny side up” that time too, so more of the pain was in my back. My mother and mother-in-law had told me they never knew when they were having contractions, just felt the pressure of pushing at the end. That astonished me. My mom literally never knew when she was having contractions, just knew that she “felt funny.”


I am an old woman, and my kids are 14 1/2 and almost 11, so it is hard to remember the details of the sensation of contractions. I had a c-section after pushing non medicated for 5 hours with my fat, 9lb 37 week direct OP baby (occiput posterior — baby who is facing up instead of back), and a non-medicated VBAC with my second, so feel like I really got a sense of what things felt like. They started as menstrual cramps, and an ache in my lower back, moving around and increasing in intensity deep in my pelvis. I did not have back labor with either, even the OP babe. I have to say that I did not think they were that bad, I mean, intense, yes, requiring deep focus and coping, yes, but the worst pain I ever felt? No! It was very freeing to surrender to the contractions, doing whatever felt good, no matter how crazy or silly it seemed. From my two datapoints, I seem to take forever to labor/dilate to 3 cm, and then go from 3-10 really fast! Labors last about 36 hours each, in both labors, I immersed myself in the tub, completely, except for my nose, when I had the intense contractions, removing all the sensory stimulation, ears underwater, eyes closed, remaining really loose. Alternately, I did a lot of deep vocalization. As I said, hard, yes, intense, yes, all encompassing, yes, body wracking, yes, but incredibly painful — no. If I could, I would labor and birth once a year! No pregnancy, no baby to keep, just a big ole labor and birth! It was the hardest, most intense, but doable work I have ever done!




Avatar of Cara TerreriAbout Cara Terreri
Cara began working with Lamaze in 2004, two years before becoming a mother. Three kids later, she's a full-fledged healthy birth advocate and the Site Administrator for Giving Birth with Confidence. Most recently Cara began study to become a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and DONA certified doula (learn more about her services at www.SimpleSupportBirth.com). She continues to stand in awe of the power and beauty in pregnancy and birth, and enjoys helping women discover their own power and joy in the journey to motherhood.


  1. GREAT POST! I know someone who didn’t know she was in labor till she was about 4 hours in! Then the whole drama of rushing her to the hospital had to happen. If more moms read this, they’ll be much better off. Mom’s need to prepare for their baby’s every step of the way or way before those steps even come!

  2. Kim Craig says:

    I was induced with my first (big mistake)! The contractions felt like tightening in my abs and quickly became overwhelming. My nurse kept pushing drugs on me every 30 minutes and finally I accepted. I was given a narcotic and felt like I was completely out of control. They were literally on top of each other through my whole labor. I wept, felt confused, and slept through most of the contraction but would awaken at the peak. I felt out of control and like I was suffering. That’s all I remember, don’t remember the exact feeling. I got an epidural, the narcotic wore off, and after that all I could feel was pressure in my bum. That labor ended in a c-section after a couple of hours of pushing with a posterior baby.

    My second labor was spontaneous (started on it’s own). I felt really crampy that day, like menstrual cramps. I thought I wouldn’t know what labor felt like so I was super excited when they started coming in a rhythm at regular intervals! It started in my perineum, then moved to the front lower abs, then deep into my butt. It was like that for the first few hours and felt like a tightening wave. They stayed really low until my labor progressed til 5 or 6cm then I started feeling the same sensations but now encompassing more of my abs and back. At 7cm I got a walking epidural due to pressure from doctors due to my being a vbac. I felt intense cramping (like a charlie horse) throughout my whole abs and back from 7cm-9cm but without the pain. Then I started feeling intense cramping in my bum. At 9cm I had them turn the epidural off, being afraid I wouldn’t feel the urge to push and would require another C-section. After that it felt incredibly overwhelming however since I was so close to pushing I was able to focus my pain. I was amazed at how regular and wave-like they were. It was NOTHING compared with my Pitocin labor in that I didn’t feel out of control of my pain til the very end and that didn’t last too long.

  3. Stacy Martin says:

    It is interesting to read everyone’s experiences. I had two C-sections, and didn ‘t feel labor paints due to an epidural for the first delivery. The second delivery, however, was a day earlier than planned. My water broke, and after arriving at the hospital, the labor pains began. Not pleasant!! My friend referred to them as “Passing shards of glass!”. I couldn’t agree more.

  4. sc3441 says:

    The contractions felt like a blow torch in my lower abdomen, very painful. Thank G-d for the Epidural.

  5. Jamie says:

    This was very helpful!!! I’m 5 weeks into my first pregnancy & I have a million questions running through my head! I always wondered what a contraction felt like and now I have at least an idea!
    I heard the epidural can actually be more painfull than natural birth.. is there any truth to that??

  6. Ryan says:

    Hi Jamie-
    Congrats on your pregnancy ( now you’re into the best part of the pregnancy!) I ended up being induced with pitocin after 12 hours of natural labor. Once the pit was started, I felt as though my contractions went from bearable to feeling like I was being hit by a Mack truck over and over. After 3 hours of that, the anaesthesiologist came in and apologized for the discomfort of starting the epidural which was a pinch and a burn. NOTHING compared to the contractions on pitocin… I actually laughed as he apologized. Good luck with your labor! No matter how your baby comes into the world,childbirth is the most amazing experience ever. And it ends with love at first sight!

  7. Danielle says:

    I had my baby girl August 31st 2004 and I remember my labor as if it happened yesterday. I was 20 years old, unmarried, and living with my parents. With that being said, my pregnancy was “the elephant in the room” therefore pregnancy education was not a topic of discussion. I did however watch TLC’s “A Baby Story” everyday and learned what to expect…well, at least I thought I learned lol. Ok, I went into labor exactly on my due date of August 30th. Sitting in class felt cramps in the lower part of my stomach, but I just brushed it off as pain from campus walking. This went on from about 9:00am-4pm. The cramps wouldn’t last very long and they weren’t very strong, but I did have to hold the bottom of my stomach each time I felt one. I got home around 6pm and told my mom about my cramps. Of course she said I was in labor but I wasn’t behaving like the women on TLC so I just knew I wasn’t. My mother insisted we hurry and go to Wal-mart to get my nic-nac items for my hospital bag (deodorant, soap, cute night gown etc) and we did just that. It’s now around 8pm and the cramps are so intense that I have to shop while riding in the electric wheelchair basket. It was so painful I would have to stop pressing the go button on the cart during these cramps. We make it back home around 10pm and now I’m in immense pain. So much so that my mom calls my doctor at 11pm. The doctor tells my mom that since this is my first baby, it’ll be awhile before I actually deliver and to stay at home. At this point, I feeling waves of pain from my sides all the way to the front of my stomach. It felt like a combination of knives, fire, and knots in my belly. So I decided to get in the bathtub in hot hot water. I soak in the tub for nearly an hour before I got out. I wobbled to my bedroom and laid on the corner edge of my bed. I look at the clock and it’s almost 1am. I got the “I gotta pee” feeling and as soon as I tried to hold it, my body was like “oh no maam, I don’t think so” and I pee’d everywhere (actually my water broke). After my water broke the painful feelings I was feeling worsened X10. In addition to the knives, fire, and knots I felt already, now it felt like pliers (the tool) was inside of my belly twisting my intestines until they snapped but it seemed as though it stop twisting right before the snap actually happened. I called my mom into my room and told her something was terribly wrong and that we needed to go to the hospital now! My dad had a 2002 Ford Eddie Bauer Expedition and my mom had a competition orange 2004 drop top mustang limited edition…..and she chooses the mustang to drive me in!!!! OMG that was the worst car ride in my life!!! I felt every crack, crevice, and bump in the road. After the ten mile drive, we arrive at the emergency room and the orderly comes out to the car with a wheel chair to get me. As hes removing me from the low-sitting vehicle the knives, fire, knots, and pliers started up again. (keep in mind I still don’t know anything about contractions) I told the orderly “Wait Wait Wait” and he attempted to wait until my mom said, “No keep going, shes gonna hurt shes in labor”. (In hindsight, that dude could’ve waited until my contraction was over with lol)…Anyway, I’m finally rolled into a room about as big as a large home bathroom to check my cervix….Check this out: how about I was NINE AND A HALF CENTIMETERS DILATED!!!!!!! The entire wing where I was went into a frenzy trying to get me prepped for delivery….It was too late for an epidural!!! At this point, the pain is so bad that I’m actually holding my breath during these back-to-back-to-back-to-back contractions. It hurt so bad I couldn’t even cry. I was even afraid to make faces or noises because every inch of my body suffered. I was literally shaking as though if I had the worse case of Parkinson’s disease in the history of the earth. By the time they get me onto the table in the delivery room, I feel the urge to push. I was pushing before the doctor came into the room. He had to tell me to stop. I did about 4 pushes before I felt this burning sensation. I screamed out “Its burning! It’s burning!” The doctor said, “It’s okay you’re just tearing” (in my mind…JUST tearing??? omg my vagina is tearing…oh noooo lol) But the thought of my now out of shape vagina went out of my mind when he laid my baby girl on my stomach, while simultaneously giving me an intravenous shot of Demerol!!!! WHEW!! What a relief. My baby was born about 20 minutes after pulling up to the emergency room door. Ladybug was born at 1:53am. Had we left the house any later, my daughter would have the competition orange mustang on her birth certificate! LOL And so that I won’t ever feel that pain again, my IUD has allowed me to have 1 child and shes now 8 years old…but I have to admit…. the feeling of pain is so so worth the feeling of love that comes immediately after. I would give birth to my baby all over again.

  8. Melanie says:

    My water broke at 7 am and I had bad backaches from midday but I had no idea it was contractions at first. It was all in my back and my stomach didn’t tighten at all. My midwife told me to stay home until they got regular. They never did!! I’m glad I didn’t listen because I told my husband we better get to the hospital the pain was way too much. When we arrived at the hospital I was 9 centimetres!! And it wasn’t until babies head was almost out I felt them in my stomach too. Like non stop burning. Back contractions SUCKED! My contractions weren’t textbook, listen to your body not just the midwife! They are there to guide you but you know what is going on in there. I’m 40 weeks with #2 now and I’m really hoping to not have back contractions this time!

  9. Melanie says:

    Oh and to add the midwife actually had to tell me when to push I never had the uncontrollable urge you always read about and I couldn’t tell when I was in the middle of a contraction at the end! Hope this helps someone!

  10. Beautiful Jackson says:

    I’m 21 and I just got married and just had a baby… I was about to give birth.
    For those who said the shot in your back is worst,we’ll its not its actually better then just givin rag ulnar birth it takes the pain away for when u give birth to your baby…when I had mine tell u the truth I did dent neven feel it that much if pain from when it come out below. Now afterwards u will feel it because u will have to get stitches but mine heeled up with in 3 to 4 days I was lucky <3 that was my first it was pretty easy too in if your all baby trust me your belly will go right back down ( if your skinny ) my did lol but u don't have to worry about nun just keep faith in god and everything will be alright remember pray before u have your baby to make shore every thing is ok and goes well…. Good luck

  11. nicole says:

    labor was the worst pain ive ever experienced just no its pain every womens pain is different but it is so worth it good luck.


  1. [...] Will I Know If I am in Labor? (Of course, if you have a doula, she can help you figure that out!) What Do Contractions Feel Like? What does Pushing Feel Like? Includes a collection of women describing their experiences, so you [...]

  2. [...] other women experience this, but I do.  Every women is different and will feel different in labor. Here is an explanation of what a contraction feels [...]

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