Most people associate contractions with labor. In fact, they happen throughout pregnancy, though it may not be possible to feel them early on.

It is important to know the differences between Braxton-Hicks contractions, preterm labor, and term labor because prompt medical care may be able to delay preterm labor.

This article describes what contractions feel like at different stages of pregnancy.

This is labor that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. The earlier that labor occurs, the higher the risk to the baby.

What do these contractions feel like?

Preterm labor begins just like regular labor, with contractions that get steadily stronger.

Some signs of preterm labor include:

  • discharge from the vagina, especially bloody discharge or the release of lots of fluid
  • pressure in the stomach that feels like downward pushing
  • contractions that become more predictable and are spaced at regular intervals
  • pain in the back

What to do

Preterm labor is an emergency because it can result in early birth. Anyone who may be experiencing preterm labor should contact their doctor.

If the doctor is unavailable, go to the hospital.

Treatment for preterm labor can help delay it, allowing the baby more time to develop in the womb. It is especially effective if the person receives the treatment early.

These can begin as early as 6 weeks into a pregnancy, but a person typically does not feel them until the third trimester.

The uterus contracts at random intervals. These contractions, called Braxton-Hicks contractions, are like “practice” contractions.

They are not a risk factor for preterm labor or any other complications. Instead, they are a normal part of pregnancy that prepares the body for birth.

What do they feel like?

Braxton-Hicks contractions are less intense than labor contractions — but it can be easy to mistake them for labor, especially if it is the person’s first pregnancy.

A person may experience them as a tightening sensation, which may or may not cause discomfort.

Some signs of Braxton-Hicks contractions include:

  • sudden cramping in the stomach or back that goes away
  • contractions that come and go
  • contractions that do not get more intense with time
  • contractions that stop or slow with movement, massage, or rest

What to do

Braxton-Hicks contractions are not dangerous. Sometimes moving around, stretching, walking, or taking a shower helps ease them.

If Braxton-Hicks contractions are very painful, a healthcare provider can recommend safe ways to relieve the pain.

During labor, a pregnant person experiences several types of contraction. The sensations may be different during early labor, active labor, the transition stage, and when pushing.

What do early labor contractions feel like?

Answering this question can be challenging because early labor contractions feel different to everyone.

Some people experience a type of early labor called prodromal labor. This causes the cervix to dilate slowly, over many days or weeks, and it involves irregular contractions. These may be painful, but they do not last long and are not as intense as regular labor contractions.

During early labor, the cervix opens to 6 centimeters (cm). For most people, this happens over several hours.

These contractions may feel like intense menstrual cramps that become more painful with time. They may become less intense when a person moves around or gets into the water.

As the cervix opens more, early labor contractions transition to more active labor and may be so intense that a person cannot talk or needs to breathe deeply to cope.

The duration of each contraction and the amount of time between contractions can provide important information about the progress of labor.

To time contractions:

  1. Start counting when a new contraction begins. Write down the duration of the contraction as soon as it ends.
  2. Continue counting, without starting over, until the next contraction begins.

Various contraction apps can help make timing easier, allowing a person to focus on coping, preparing for birth, and contacting the necessary people.

When to go to the hospital

Not everyone goes to the hospital to give birth. People who have planned home births with midwives or at birthing centers should call their healthcare provider at the first sign of labor for guidance about what to do next.

People who plan to go to the hospital should also call a healthcare provider when labor begins. Different doctors have different recommendations about when to come to the hospital, and a person’s overall health can be an important factor.

It is especially important to receive medical care immediately if a person has any health issue that makes their delivery high-risk.

In general, a person should go to the hospital if:

  • They see anything other than liquid come out of the vagina.
  • They feel an urge to push.
  • They have heavy bleeding.
  • They have regular contractions before 37 weeks.

Contractions should happen at regular intervals, about every 3–4 minutes or more often, for about 1 hour. Each contraction should last about 60 seconds.

What do active labor contractions feel like?

Active labor contractions are more regular. Usually, the cervix has dilated more than 6 cm.

People planning on going to the hospital usually wait until active labor has begun. Active labor contractions are closer together and more intense — a person cannot usually talk or focus on anything else during a contraction.

The following are some signs of active labor:

  • Contractions occur at more regular intervals, usually at least as often as every 3–4 minutes.
  • Each contraction lasts 30–60 seconds or even up to 90 seconds.
  • Contractions become more intense and painful.
  • People who plan to use pain medication may find it necessary to begin.

What do transition contractions feel like?

The transition stage is the shift from active labor to pushing. For many people, though not all, it is the most difficult stage of labor.

During the transition, contractions get very intense. They are usually just 60–90 seconds apart. Also, some people report contractions that feel layered, with one beginning before the last has ended.

The transition usually begins at around 7 cm of dilation, and some signs of it include:

  • feeling overwhelmed or exhausted
  • wanting medication to manage the pain
  • feeling as if there is no break between contractions

What do pushing contractions feel like?

A person is ready to push when their cervix is dilated to 10 cm.

Pushing is the second stage of labor, and the experience varies significantly from person to person. Contractions continue, but a person also feels a strong urge to bear down. Some people say that the feeling is like the need to have a bowel movement.

Pushing may feel good, it may be very painful, or it may be both.

As the baby’s head moves down and out of the vagina, the skin of the vagina and perineum stretch. Pushing slowly may ease the pain of this stretching.

Many people report an intense stinging or burning sensation, called the “ring of fire,” during this stage. This only lasts a few minutes and signals that birth will take place soon.

If a person has an epidural, they tend to still experience sensations, such as pressure, but a significant reduction in pain.

Labor is different for everyone. While it often follows a general pattern with progressively more intense contractions, it can stop and start, feel very intense from the beginning, or change at seemingly random intervals.

Err on the side of caution and call a doctor or midwife if any signs of preterm labor or unusual symptoms or sensations develop.

Before the end of pregnancy draws near, speak with a healthcare provider about any risk factors for preterm labor and when to seek medical attention. Having a plan can help facilitate decision-making when contractions begin.