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How much do contractions really hurt? Ways to cope!

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

Let’s learn about contraction discomfort, you can do this! Watch the YouTube Video Here

  • How does a contraction feel?

  • What are braxton hicks and how do I know if my contractions are real or fake?

  • When and how to start timing contractions?

  • How can I support my partner during contractions?

  • I’m scared of the intensity of labor and contractions, what can I do to cope?

These are some of the questions I’m most commonly asked or that I hear. Have no fear, the doula is here!

This is me, mid contraction, about 8-9cm dilated.

Hi, I’m Charda, a mom, doula and lactation consultant in San Diego, California and I love teaching families how to have a more healthy and positive pregnancy, birth, parenting & breastfeeding experience! My focus is on empowering Black moms, babies and families to be resilient, informed and protected on their life journey!

We will learn:

Feel free to click on the titles to skip straight to what you need. To jump to the summary click here. Check throughout the blog for many freebies to add to your birth plan!

Contractions don’t have to be scary, think of these intense ‘period cramps’ as waves or surges that bring you closer to seeing your baby’s sweet face! Once you learn why contractions happen, the difference between real and false labor as well as how to cope with labor pains and discomforts, you will be well on your way to a more peaceful birthing experience through knowledge. You will feel more confident and empowered to surf the waves during birth! The average length of pregnancy is 40 weeks. But there is no way to know exactly when you will go into labor. Most people give birth between 38 and 41 weeks of pregnancy. The more you know about what to expect during labor, the better prepared you will be once it begins. No one knows exactly how labor begins, it's mostly speculated to begin with hormonal changes. As labor begins, the cervix will dilate (open) the uterus muscles will contract at regular intervals . When the uterus contracts the belly gets hard, between the contraction the uterus and cervix will soften and relax. Certain changes may signal that labor is beginning and these changes include one or all of the following:

  • Lightening - This is the sensation that the fetus has dropped lower and the head settles deep in your pelvis. Because the fetus isn’t pressing on your diaphragm, you may feel “lighter.” Lightening can happen anywhere from a few weeks to a few hours before labor begins.

  • Loss of the mucus plug - A thick mucus plug forms at the cervix during pregnancy. When the cervix begins to dilate several days before labor begins or at the start of labor, the plug is pushed into the vagina. You may notice an increase in vaginal discharge that is clear, pink, or slightly bloody. Some will expel the entire mucus plug.

  • Rupture of membranes - When the fluid-filled amniotic sac that surrounds the fetus during pregnancy breaks, it is called the rupture of membranes. This is also referred to as your “water breaking.” You may feel this as fluid that trickles or gushes from your vagina. If your water breaks, call your OB-GYN or midwife.

  • Contractions - Labor contractions happen in a regular pattern and get closer together over time.

You might or might not notice some of these changes before labor begins.

What are contractions & how do they feel?

One of the most commonly asked questions in my private childbirth education classes. As your uterus contracts, you may feel pain in your back or pelvis and this pain is similar to menstrual cramps. Contractions are your body’s way of helping your baby travel through the birth canal. Less than optimal positioning of the baby can lead to the body can lend to some pretty gnarly back labor, like I had with my first born. Contractions are an important part of the normal physiologic process of birth to unfold naturally. The body must continue contracting for the duration of the labor, and if at any point your body or baby takes a break or contractions slow down, there are ways to help stimulate them to start back up.

For many folks, building contractions are the most uncomfortable part of laboring, but once you understand them and why it’s happening, this makes you deal with it a bit more positively which helps promote a happy healthy birth. For a first time birth giver, 12 to 18 hours is an average labor time, after the first baby the subsequent labors are typically shorter around 8-10 hours, but every birthing person is different. Your labor may not be like your mother’s, your sister’s, or your friend’s labor. It may even be different with each child you have. Labor and delivery usually follow a pattern. An average first stage of labor lasts around 8 hours but during that time, only about 20% of that time will be uncomfortable and about 80% of the rest of the time you’re ok with little to no discomfort. The peak of the contraction is the hardest part, it’s only 10-20 seconds and out of that percentage it’s only about 7-8% of the total 8 hours. So for that 20 seconds that’s when you want to ride the wave. I like to use the analogy of waves in the ocean, you and your baby are the vessel that moves through that water and together you can ride that wave of the contraction. As the contraction rises to the top, when the wave is at it’s highest point, this is when we want to focus on our breath. I love this visual explanation from Bloomlife on what happens during a contraction.

How do I know if my contractions are real or fake?

Grab my free true vs false labor handout click here to download!

Braxton Hicks are false contractions that can happen for many weeks before real labor begins. These “practice” contractions can be painful for some and can make you think you are in labor when you are not. You might notice them more at the end of the day when you are winding down. First you want to know the 5-1-1 rule to decide where you might be in the process. 5-1-1 is an easy way to remember contractions being 5 mins apart or less AND contraction is lasting 1 min or longer AND this has been happening for 1 hour or longer, this would be signs of true labor.

You should call your doula or midwife to ask for more guidance. Sporadic uterine muscle activity is likely false labor while Synchronized or Rhythmic and somewhat predictable patterns of uterine muscle activity is likely true labor. False contractions will subside with position or activity change, may be uncomfortable,