What do contractions feel like? Experts explain the causes of contraction pain and what to expect throughout labor.

woman in labor hospital bed
Arkom Suvarnasiri/Shutterstock
| Credit: Arkom Suvarnasiri/Shutterstock

You'll probably be on the lookout for labor contractions as your due date approaches—so what exactly are you supposed to be feeling? "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 indicate what you're experiencing is, indeed, labor contraction pain. Here's what expectant parents need to know.

What Causes Contraction Pain?

To start, it might help to understand the purpose of contractions. They're caused by uterine muscles tightening to push the baby into the proper position for delivery, and then out into the world.  "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.

The severity of contraction pain depends on many factors: how your baby is positioned within your body, your movements during labor, and your own perception of pain. "Some people have contractions that make them double over in pain, while others don't even realize they're in labor—they just feel a little cramping or backache," Dr. Putterman says. 

What Do Contractions Feel Like?

Wondering what to expect with labor contractions? Here's how experts and moms describe them.

They may feel like period cramps. Some women describe labor contraction pain as intense menstrual cramps that increase in intensity.  "It starts out like menstrual cramps—and the crampy sensation progressively gets worse and worse," Dr. du Treil explains.

Contractions could resemble gas. Strong gas pain is another point of comparison many moms make. If you have gas pain that doesn't ease up after a visit to the bathroom, you might actually be in labor.

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."

Contractions change in intensity. By monitoring the strength of labor contraction pain, you'll notice an increase in intensity. "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!

How to Ease Contraction Pain

Some moms-to-be decrease contraction pain with medications, such as an epidural or spinal anesthesia. Others rely on natural methods—for example, moving into different positions (on all fours, straddling a birthing ball, on your side), sitting in a warm bath or shower, trying meditation or visualization, having their partner massage their back, etc.

Just remember: whether your contractions are simply uncomfortable or downright painful, you'll know that something amazing comes out of them. And that makes your labor worth it!