A pregnant person may feel better prepared for childbirth if they learn about what different types of contractions feel like. This includes symptoms of Braxton-Hicks contractions, prodromal labor, early labor, and active labor.

Pregnant people may wonder if they will recognize their contractions when they begin. They may also question if what they are feeling is premature labor.

While contractions can vary widely, there are some common symptoms of each stage of labor. Learn about them in this article.

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Labor can vary greatly in length and pain levels between individuals and also between different pregnancies.

However, by knowing what to expect from each type of contraction, a person can feel better prepared.

Braxton-Hicks contractions

Health experts sometimes call Braxton-Hicks contractions “false” or “practice” labor contractions. These contractions do not indicate that labor has started.

Some of the key indicators of Braxton-Hicks contractions include:

  • contractions that do not increase in intensity or get closer together
  • irregular contractions
  • sensations that are more uncomfortable than painful
  • contractions in the groin area or front of the body instead of the back
  • walking or lying down may help the contractions subside

Braxton-Hicks contractions can occur as early as 6 weeks into pregnancy but are usually more pronounced during the second or third trimester. However, some people may be unaware of these contractions until well into their third trimester.

Prodromal labor

Prodromal labor refers to the contractions a person experiences in the weeks, days, or hours before true labor begins.

These contractions are often stronger, more regular, and sometimes longer than Braxton-Hicks contractions. However, they do not signal true labor.

Doctors believe prodromal labor may help move the baby into the proper position for true labor.

Some indicators of prodromal labor include:

  • no cervical changes after 24–36 hours
  • when lying down does not help contractions go away
  • strong contractions that do not tend to get closer together over time

Prodromal contractions do not contract so much that they thin or dilate the cervix. This is how doctors can usually tell the difference between active labor and prodromal labor.

Early labor

Early labor is the stage during where a person’s cervix begins dilating or enlarging, usually between 0 and 6 centimeters (cm).

Full dilation of the cervix is at around 10 cm, which is usually enough for the baby to pass through.

People can have very different experiences of early labor contractions. Some of the symptoms they may describe include:

  • a dull ache or pain in the back
  • some difficulty breathing through the contractions
  • pelvic pressure and fullness
  • pain that starts in the back and moves to the front
  • very strong cramps

As labor progresses, the contractions lengthen, usually lasting at least 45–60 seconds, and will be 5 minutes apart or less.

At this stage, a person will probably prepare for childbirth by going to the hospital or birth center or by calling a midwife if they are planning to give birth at home.

Doctors often recommend laboring at home for as long as possible before going to the hospital. This is especially true if it is someone’s first pregnancy, as labor tends to take slightly longer.

Active labor

Active labor is when contractions start to be more pronounced and painful. Delivering the baby is imminent at this time, and dilation of the cervix is usually at least 6 cm.

In addition to cervical dilation, symptoms of active labor include:

  • contractions that occur every 5 minutes or less
  • contractions that last 60 seconds or more
  • feelings of the uterus not relaxing between contractions
  • significant pain and pressure in the back as the baby’s head moves down the birth canal

During this time, the pressure on the rectum may make a person feel as if they need a bowel movement. They also may feel a strong urge to push.

Some measures that may help a person with labor pains include the following.

  • Exercise: Unless a doctor recommends restricting physical activity, exercise throughout pregnancy can help develop physical endurance, flexibility, and muscle tone before labor. Exercise does not have to be high impact to be effective. Many low impact activities, such as yoga and swimming, can also be beneficial.
  • Attending birthing classes: Many hospitals and community centers offer birthing classes that focus on relaxation and how to support labor. Examples include the Lamaze technique and the Bradley method. Each approach focuses on breathing techniques, distraction, and massage, among other techniques.
  • Meditation: Meditation, yoga, and other forms of relaxation can help a person breathe deeply, focus, and find energy through the contractions.
  • Distractions: Listening to soothing music, counting, and other distraction techniques can help take the focus away from labor pains.
  • Aromatherapy: Smelling soothing essential oils, such as lavender, may aid relaxation and encourage deep breathing.

In addition to these techniques, a doctor can discuss medical pain management methods, including epidural anesthesia or oral medications.

If a pregnant person thinks labor contractions have started, they can perform a few techniques to help confirm this, including the below.

  • Record the contractions for 1 hour, including the duration of each one and its intensity.
  • Attempt to walk or lie down to see if the contractions improve.
  • Note any signs of vaginal discharge, such as clear, pink, or bloody discharge.

If a person cannot rule out Braxton-Hicks contractions after lying down or walking, they should contact their doctor to discuss the contractions.

The individual should also call their doctor if their water breaks, especially if they experience any discharge of any green- or brown-tinted fluid.

If contractions are especially painful or if a person has concerns about themselves or the baby in any way, they should also seek medical attention.

Labor contractions are part of the natural process that moves a baby through the birth canal.

They can be very painful, but natural techniques and medications can help reduce their severity.

People should discuss labor contraction symptoms with their doctor in advance to help identify signs that it is time to go to the hospital.