It can be hard to know what to expect from labor pains and contractions, especially if it is a woman's first pregnancy.
Pregnant women may wonder if they will recognize their contractions when they begin, or 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.
Labor can vary greatly in its length and pain levels between individuals and also between different pregnancies.
But, by knowing what to expect from each type of contraction, a woman can feel better prepared.
Sometimes called "false" or "practice" labor contractions, Braxton-Hicks contractions do not indicate that labor has started.
Some of the key signs 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.
Some women may be unaware of these contractions until well into the third trimester.
Prodromal labor refers to the contractions a woman experiences in the weeks, days, or hours before true labor begins.
These contractions are often stronger, more regular, and sometimes longer than Braxton-Hicks contraction, but do not signal true labor.
Doctors believe that prodromal labor may help move the baby into the proper position for true labor.
Some symptoms of prodromal labor include:
- no cervical changes after 24 to 36 hours
- 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 is the stage during which a woman'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.
Women can have very different experiences of early labor contractions. Some of the symptoms they may describe include:
- 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 to 60 seconds) and will be 5 minutes apart or less.
At this stage, a woman 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, 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.
Stage 2 or active labor
Stage 2 labor is when contractions start to be more pronounced and painful. Delivering the baby is imminent at this time. Dilation of the cervix is usually at least 6 cm at this stage.
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 woman feel as if she has to have a bowel movement. She also may feel a strong urge to push.
Some measures that may help a person with labor pains include:
- 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 women's centers offer birthing classes that focus on relaxation and how to support labor. Examples include the Lamaze technique and Bradley method. Each approach focuses on breathing techniques, distraction, and massage, among other things.
- Meditation: Meditation, yoga, and other forms of relaxation can help a woman 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. These include epidural anesthesia or oral medications.
If a woman thinks labor contractions have started, there are a few things she should do. These include:
- Record the contractions for an hour, including 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 woman cannot rule out Braxton-Hicks contractions after lying down or walking, she should call her doctor to discuss the contractions.
She should also call her doctor if her water breaks, especially if she is aware of the discharge of any green- or brown-tinted fluid.
If contractions are especially painful or if a woman is worried about herself or the baby in any way, she 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 there are natural techniques and medications to help reduce their severity.
People should discuss labor contraction symptoms with their doctor in advance, to help identify those that signal the time to go to the hospital.