Contractions are the expected tightening and relaxing of the uterine muscles in a natural labor. The purpose of contractions is to dilate the cervix and push the baby through the birth canal. Some women describe the feeling of contractions as cramping, while others liken it to a growing pressure that wraps around their abdomen to their back. They last about sixty seconds each, and are rhythmic and painful. A woman may also experience false labor contractions during her pregnancy, though, which can cause confusion for an expectant mother.
In 1872, obstetrician J. Braxton Hicks observed that the uterine muscle contracts without pain in the first trimester of pregnancy. By the second trimester, these contractions can be felt through the skin, and by the third, can become quite frequent. These typically painless contractions feel like a tightening or balling up of the uterus that is irregular and non-rhythmic. The whole belly will feel tightened, releasing after about a minute, and will repeat a few minutes later. These Braxton Hicks contractions, or false labor, can begin as early as week twenty of your pregnancy, and can continue taking place. Some women even experience them the entire second half of the pregnancy, while other women never experience a false labor contraction. If you experience Braxton Hicks contractions, and the contractions occur more than five to six times per hour, you should hydrate with a few glasses of water and lie down to rest.
New moms are often anxious to know what it will feel like to be in real labor, and we always have the same answer: You’ll know. Labor hurts, and there’s no way around it. Like Braxton Hicks, true labor contractions begin as a feeling of tightness in the front or back. Over time, they become rhythmic, happening every two to five minutes. In true labor, the cervix dilates and effaces, meaning it opens and shortens. The pain of the contraction escalates as labor progresses, and most women have difficulty even speaking during a labor contraction. If it’s easy to have a conversation with someone, you are most likely not experiencing true labor.
Often, a woman is unsure if her contractions are regular or painful enough to call her doctor or go to the hospital. The best guideline you can use is the timing of your contractions. This timing has two parts: the duration of the contraction itself and the amount of time between the contractions. Time how long the contraction lasts, and time from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next. An easy rule to use is the 5-1-1 rule: if you are having contractions every five minutes, each contraction lasts about one minute, and these minute-long contractions last for one hour, call the doctor or go to the hospital. This regular, rhythmic pattern and the growing intensity over time is a sign that the time has come.
For more information on the difference between false labor and real labor, refer to page 224 of The Mommy Docs’ Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy and Birth.