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What do contractions feel like?

This is one of the top questions I get asked as an antenatal teacher. And it’s a really important question!

Unfortunately, all we see of contractions are what is portrayed on TV - and that involves a lot of screaming in a hospital and naturally that image can become etched in our minds.

However, if we take the time to learn about contractions during our pregnancy they suddenly don’t seem so scary. This helps us get into the right mindset for a positive birth. So I’ll do my best to share my insights here.

Labour Stages

Labour does not suddenly start. You will learn all about the different stages of labour as part of a course but for now its important to realise that contractions can feel different at different stages.

What do Contractions in Early Labour feel like?

The best way to describe early contractions is to think of them like period cramps. Contractions feel a little different for everyone, but generally, you will feel them as a steady increase in intensity or pressure in your abdomen and/or lower back that comes and goes in waves.

Contractions will feel different if your baby is not ideally positioned for labour. If you baby is lying OP known as 'back-to-back' you may not feel contractions that come and go, but instead some constant discomfort in your lower back. Changing positions may have relieve this discomfort. You can read about getting your baby into the best position for labour here.

If baby is in a good position, in early labour, the cramps you will feel may only last a few seconds. They will reoccur sporadically, sometimes a few minutes apart and other times 10-20 minutes apart. This is a great time to practice your breathing and relaxation techniques and find your own rhythm in labour. You can also use clever tools such as a tens machine or an acupressure comb to to see what works best for you.

As your labour advances, the intensity, frequency and duration of each contraction increases as the muscles of your uterus work hard to bring your baby to you.

What do Contractions in Active Labour feel like?

You are in Active Labour when your contractions are 3 in 10. This means 3 contractions in 10 minutes. They often last about a minute, and are about 2-3 minutes apart. This is the stage you would call the hospital, but ideally not leave just yet.

Contractions are often described as waves.

Each contraction steadily builds in intensity up to a powerful peak and then gradually fades away, like a bell curve or a wave in the sea. Some Hypnobirthing women prefer to call contractions “surges”.

Contractions last for about 45-60 seconds during active labour. The intensity will be higher now and you will need to focus more inwards on your body during each wave. The brilliant design of our bodies means you will have a couple of minutes rest in between each contraction to allow you to rest and get ready for the next one. Yes your body is doing it’s own very special HIIT workout!!

If we use the visual of each contraction as a powerful wave, a great technique is to imagine you’re surfing that wave!

  • For the first 20-30 seconds focus on breathing deeply and slowly as the intensity builds. This ensures lots of nourishing oxygen is getting into your blood to fuel the muscles of your uterus.

  • When the wave is at its peak, marvel in how amazing and powerful your body is as it brings your baby to you.

  • Continue to breathe deeply as the surge gently melts away, knowing that it gets easier once you’re past the peak.

  • As the surge finishes, tell yourself well done! Each and every contraction brings you one step closer to meeting your baby!

How painful are contractions?

Instead of asking how painful contractions are, ask this question - are contractions painful?

Contractions feel powerful, intense, sensational, crazy, strong, mind-blowing, unstoppable, all-consuming…but I wouldn’t use the word “painful”. Why?

The problem with associating hospitals with birth, is that we associate hospitals with places we go when something is wrong with our body, a place to be fixed. Usually something is causing us pain. Pain is pathological. It is a signal your body sends to say something is not right and needs to change in order to protect you. If you put your hand too close to a flame, it will hurt, telling you to remove your hand before it gets burnt.

Birth is physiological. What this means is that it is a normal, natural, bodily process in the same was digestion is. If labour is progressing as it should, there really should not be pain. Now that is not to say you shouldn't feel something - but it should feel powerful and incredible, rather than unbearable. If you think about how other mammals give birth: dogs, cats, even giraffes - they do it without appearing in too much discomfort and without someone checking their cervix has dilated enough for them to push.

Unfortunately, many modern practices in childbirth are not conducive to the way your body is designed to labour. For example, being made to labour on your back, being thrust under bright lights, having multiple vaginal examinations, labour augmentation drips, being told you’re “failing to progress”…

So if you find it is hurting, this is often your body’s signal that something needs to change: change position, get up and walk around, sway your hips, ensure your birth partner knows how to help you relax and create an optimal birthing environment wherever you are, make informed decisions that are best for you and your baby, ensure your voice is being heard…

Many women do have pain-free births. However I would never say that my Hypnobirthing courses can guarantee you a pain-free birth. You are moving a whole new human being through your body so of course that is going to feel intense and challenging! However, once you know that contractions are simply our uterus muscles working hard, not something scary and uncontrollable, you can accept and even enjoy the powerful sensations that you will feel during labour and birth.

Making contractions less painful - is it all in your mind?

The more powerful your contractions are, the better! This means your body is working really well to birth your baby. However, it is vital that you remain relaxed. Your body needs to be relaxed for your contractions to be efficient. For your body to remain relaxed, your mind has to also be relaxed.

If you fear your contraction, your body automatically tenses up, you take away some of your contractions power, and they will become more painful. This really is the secret weapon of hypnobirthing and key to why it works - it keeps you relaxed. You can read about what your body needs to birth your baby as efficiently as possible here.

Understanding alternative pain relief can also make a huge difference to how you experience contractions.

Final Thought

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard is to welcome your contractions. Strong powerful contractions will bring your baby to you quicker. The stronger they are, the better! So as you feel a contraction start to come, don’t shrink away from it, don’t fear it.

Instead, welcome the contraction with a smile, marvel in how powerful and strong and AMAZING your body is for bringing your baby to you. Relax, breathe, keep smiling.

And remember… Every contraction brings me closer to meeting my baby.

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