What Does Labor Feel Like?
It's natural to be nervous about labor and delivery, especially if you're a first-time parent. Your brain is probably filled with well-justified questions: What does labor pain feel like? How painful is childbirth? Does getting an epidural really help?
While the experience is different for everyone, labor usually feels like extremely strong menstrual cramps that take your breath away and make you unable to talk. As labor continues and the pain worsens, the pregnant person tunes out stimuli and adopts a tunnel vision, focusing on the labor and getting the baby out. Eventually their cervix dilates completely; at this point, they're ready to push and give birth.
During this pushing phase, some people feel clingy, not wanting their partners to leave their sides; some yell and become uncharacteristically demanding; some tremble and feel overwhelmed and anxious; and some lose all sense of modesty. To some people, pushing feels like you are having a large bowel movement. When the baby finally starts to come out, many people think they've actually pooped.
When we asked new moms to describe what labor felt like, we received almost 500 responses. In the course of describing labor pain, their answers hit on many similar themes—how the experience compared with expectations, what pushing was like, and whether they'd recommend an epidural. We culled through the responses to pick some of the most common themes.
Real Mom Share What Labor Feels Like
Wondering what the beginning of labor feels like? What about contractions and back labor? These moms share their personal experiences.
"As a first-time mom, I had a difficult time deciding if I was in labor or if I was having Braxton Hicks contractions. My symptoms did not fit into either category. I had a lot of cramping under my belly, not radiating from the top down or in my back like the books said. When I finally went into the hospital to be checked, sure I would be sent home, I was told that I was actually in labor." – Tamara, St. Louis Park, MN
"With both my babies I didn't experience normal contractions. Instead I felt like I was having one long contraction that felt like the worst menstrual cramps I had ever had." – Rebecca, Layton, UT
"I was told it would feel like very bad menstrual cramps, but that's not what it felt like to me. It was much more intense and it was almost all in my lower back. Every time a contraction would come, my lower back would slowly begin to seize up. It was kind of like the muscles inside were slowly twisting harder and harder until it became almost unbearable, and then it would slowly subside. This is what back labor felt like for me, and it was still much more painful than I had imagined it would be." – Angelina, Ellicott City, MD
"To me, labor felt like the worst menstrual cramp or gas pain that you've ever had, combined with someone stabbing you in the stomach! It would subside and come back until the beautiful epidural lady came to save me." – Rebecca, Indianapolis, IN
"The pain is like having your insides twisted, pulled, and squeezed. If I fought it, the pain became worse. Once I surrendered to and accepted the pain, it was more bearable. It is like getting caught in the undertow of a wave. Being trapped underwater is scary – you can fight it and get more scared or you can just let go and wait until the wave releases you. Also, there was an intense searing pain in my lower back, which was helped when my husband applied pressure to it." – Tommasina, Canton, GA
"I would consider labor pains as menstrual cramps multiplied by a million. It feels like your abdomen is trying to squeeze out all its contents, not just the baby. They come in waves and varying intensity throughout the laboring process. I would go from a pretty tolerable one to an extremely intense one the next time. I have a pretty high tolerance for pain and it is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done." – Amanda, Reading, MA
"The best description I can offer of how the pain actually felt was like a deep internal 'pulling'–like someone kept reaching up deep inside me, grabbing hold of whatever internal organs they could, and trying to tug them out." – Jennifer, Olympia, WA
"My labor pain felt like my hips were being pulled apart!" – Nancy, Pico Rivera, CA
While the vast majority of our respondents found labor extremely painful, some were pleasantly surprised to find it easier than they had imagined. Keep reading to hear more about their experiences.
"My labor was wonderful. I went in for my 36th week visit and the midwife was checking to see if I was dilated. She got a funny look on her face and told me I was five centimeters dilated and 90 percent effaced! I went to the hospital, got an epidural, and four hours later had a baby girl virtually pain free." – Jamie, Canton, GA
"Labor wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. I was in labor for 16 hours, and it seemed to fly by. And it all got much easier once the epidural kicked in." – Carmen, Hendersonville, NC
"There is pain and labor does hurt, but it was not as bad as television shows or family and friends made it out to be. To me, it felt like a menstrual pain that was more painful than normal but not excruciating. Actually, the worst part was how a contraction would kick in whenever the nurse put the baby monitor on my stomach!" – Beth, Georgetown, MA
- RELATED: How to Induce Labor at Home
"Labor pain was not that bad. It feels like cramping when you get your period, just a little more intense. And the pushing is a relief. Once you hold the baby you forget all about the pain you were in." – Shannon, Corfu, NY
A handful of women mentioned that the pain didn't escalate until their water broke. Here are their experiences.
"After my water broke is when the real pain started. It was more of a tightening that got worse and worse until it peaked, then dropped off. If I could have had this particular pain once an hour or even once every 15 minutes, I'd have been able to tolerate it. But the fact that just as soon as you get through one contraction another is coming, that's what wears you down." – Valerie, Clawson, MI
"I didn't have much pain until my water broke. The pain was so bad that in the middle of one contraction I imagined that I walked away from my body. I tried to picture myself walking on the beach. Of course, that didn't work and my next thought was of the epidural." – Andrea, Trenton, NJ
"At first it was not so bad, but after my water broke, the contractions were horrible. It felt like someone had taken hold of my insides and were wringing them out like a wet dishrag." – Theresa, Youngstown, OH
Does Getting an Epidural Help?
It appears that the majority of moms who participated in our survey opted for an epidural–and were happy they did.
"Labor pains were worse than anything my imagination could have drummed up! After eight hours of labor pains I opted for the epidural. I had immediate relief." – Michele, Chesapeake, VA
"Labor pain for me was like really bad menstrual cramps. The breathing I learned in class helped, but it was hard to concentrate because of the pain. Thank God for the epidural—from someone who was not sure if she was going to get it when she first went to the hospital!" – Barbara, Fort Walton Beach, FL
"It's definitely one of the worst pains I have ever felt! The best way I can think to describe it is to say that it felt like my stomach was getting an extremely bad cramp—like a charley horse, but in my stomach! The pain was really bad, but I'm not afraid to go through labor again." – Karen, Shelby Township, MI
Some moms went with unmedicated childbirth and managed their pain in other ways.
"I have three kids and each experience was different, as it is from woman to woman. I've had IV drugs, an epidural, and nothing. I honestly preferred nothing." – Jennifer, Hatfield, AK
"My first child was born while I was under the influence of a walking epidural. I did not find that this really relieved my pain but rather made my labor feel like a nasty stomach virus. I swore I would never have anesthesia again because of how awful I felt afterwards. My second baby was born naturally. I found this labor to be much easier to cope with. The pain was very intense, but it was a clean pain almost like a sports injury. Pushing was more difficult. It felt like my whole pelvis was made of breaking glass, but this passed very quickly and I felt terrific almost immediately after delivery." – Jessica, Danby, VT
"Labor pain was the most excruciating pain I ever felt. The good news is that in between contractions there is no pain, and the contractions only last about a minute. I had four children with no pain medication." – Cindy, Vestal, NY
- RELATED: What Back Labor Pain is Really Like
"I didn't use an epidural or any pain medication. I kept my eyes closed and concentrated on my husband's voice and hummed through the contractions. It was the most empowering thing I've ever done. I would do labor over again in a heartbeat; the nine months preceding it is the hard part." – Meredith, Bradenton, FL
How Painful is Childbirth?
Most moms said that by the time they got to the pushing stage, the worst was over. Some, though, really didn't like to push and initially had a hard time figuring out how to push effectively.
"The pain was intense and horrible for two hours while I pushed. It was mostly vaginal pressure that was so painful." – Cristina, Atlanta, GA
"Labor was by far the hardest physical activity I have ever participated in. But once you get to the pushing stage and have that feeling that is similar to having a bowel movement, you are almost done. And you know that if you can just make it through the last little part, you will meet this wonderful little person you have dreamed about for so long!" – Kari, Onalaska, WI
"Of the pushing contractions, all I can say is that I knew I had to push. And it felt good to push! The only real pain I remember was when my son's head crowned. That burned!" – Rachel, Avon, IN
"Pushing was really easy, not painful at all." – Eileen, Glendale, CA
"When I started active labor, I struggled to push correctly. I didn't understand what to do until my nurse told me to push like I was pooping. I thought she was crazy but once I recognized the right push, and where it felt like it was coming from, I delivered my daughter within a few minutes!" – Tracy Fives, Lake Worth, FL
"I hate to be so graphic, but it felt like I had to have a bowel movement in the worst way! That's the only way I can describe it! It also felt as if something was going to burst through my back; I had excruciating back pain. I think I felt everything in my back rather than in my pelvis." – Anna, Austin, TX
Giving Birth is Worth the Pain
Even though most of the moms felt that giving birth was the hardest thing they'd ever done, they'd still do it all over again. That's what keeps the human race going!
"Pushing was the worst. I could feel every stretch, pull, and tear. The burning was like no other. I remember feeling there was no way I could push the baby out, it won't fit. But once all was done, I was so happy to hold our precious baby. It was all worth it." – Sharon, Danbury, CT
"The pain of my labor came in waves, where I could feel it begin, crest, and subside. During the crests, it was hard to remember to breathe, as it felt like my body was one big leg cramp, kind of like I was a towel being twisted and curled in half. But when it's all said and done and you're looking at your little joy, you know you'd go through it all again." – Kathy, Appleton, WI
"Whenever I hear Johnny Cash's booming drawl singing "Burning Ring of Fire," I remember labor and delivery. The miracle of what it means to be a woman is that all that agony is worth the 8 pounds, 1 ounce of pure beauty and joy that you hold in your arms for the first moment. – Kate, New York, NY