From cramps to gas pains, experts describe what labor contractions feel like at every stage so you know what physical symptoms to look out for.

By Lisa Milbrand
Arkom Suvarnasiri/Shutterstock

You know you're going to be on the lookout for labor contractions as that due date approaches—so what exactly are you supposed to be feeling? According to the experts, that can be kind of hard to spell out exactly.

"It's always difficult to describe what labor contractions feel like," says Paul du Treil, M.D., director of maternal and child health at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. "It's a little bit different for everybody, so you can't really say what you're going to feel."

Still, there are a few clues that what you're feeling is actually labor contractions.

Labor contractions may feel like menstrual cramps.

Really bad menstrual cramps. At least, that's the most common description that's bandied about. "It starts out like menstrual cramps—and the crampy sensation progressively gets worse and worse," Dr. du Treil says.

You may feel the uterus tightening.

Those strong contractions help push the baby into position and then out into the world, so you may feel the muscles around the uterus harden and contract. "A labor contraction is just one big muscle cramp, as the entire uterus contracts," says Bart Putterman, M.D., an ob-gyn at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston. "And you may perceive that discomfort anywhere that the muscle is contracting." So you could feel the discomfort deep within your abdomen, along the right or left sides, or even in the back.

Contractions may feel like gas pain.

Strong gas pain is often another point of comparison many moms make. If you have gas pain that doesn't ease up after a visit to the bathroom, that could mean it's a labor pain.

Labor could be a pain in your back.

If your baby is facing up when he enters the birth canal, the pressure of his skull on the nerves of your back could lead to some incredible pain. "You might feel tightening and cramping, along with a backache," Dr. Putterman says. "It may be because of the position of the baby, or sometimes it's just the way the mother perceives pain."

A change in intensity is the sure sign that it's really labor.

If you still aren't quite sure if your baby's really coming, monitor the strength of those contractions. "If the contractions are not going away, and start far apart and gradually get closer and longer and stronger, it's the real thing," Dr. Putterman says. And that means you'd better be ready to welcome your new little one to the world!


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