This is probably the most oft-asked question by first-time expectant moms, preceded only by "How will I know I'm in labor?" The textbook answer is something along the lines of, "The way a contraction feels differs from woman to woman, but in general, you will feel a all-over tightening of your uterus and pain or cramping that may begin in your lower back and radiate to the front of your uterus." Of course, if you do a Google search or spend any time on an expectant moms' web board, you'll come across responses that range from "intense menstrual cramps" to "pressure and back pain." Some women experience what they describe as very intense pain while others describe contractions as nothing more than dull, crampy aches. And, your experience with labor can also vary greatly from one child to another.
Having just [very] recently experienced labor and birth again for the third time (this time without any medical pain relief), I would describe a contraction in active labor as an all-encompassing kind of pain. There was the tell-tale uterine tightening, but then the sensation is something that is hard to describe -- I felt it mainly in my abdomen, but it was so intense, my whole body reacted to the feeling. Since labor with my first child, I've always said that with a contraction, it's as if there's no way to escape it when it's happening -- you just have to succumb -- but yet when each contraction is over, the pain relief is immediate and complete. I would describe the experience as intense and painful, but manageable. It was nothing my body couldn't handle as long as I was free to move and do what helped me cope with the pain. Now, the minute I had to be confined to a certain area or position, it was awful! For example, the car ride to the hospital was NOT fun!
Here is how nine other women describe their contractions:
Throughout my pregnancy, the Braxton Hicks contractions felt like little charlie horses over the top of my belly. When I was in labor for my first child, I remember finally deciding to get the epidural and when the medicine started to work, it only worked for half of my body. One side was bearable while the other side felt like it was being squeezed and twisted as far as it would go. I couldn't believe the difference. I would have preferred to have all or nothing! Also, having had three kids now, I will say that the difference between contractions with and without Pitocin is night and day.
I think contractions feel like a combination of nasty period cramps and horrible bowel movement cramps at the same time. I know they say they start in your back, but I felt like mine started everywhere at the same time.
My contractions with my second pregnancy were completely different from my first. With my first, they were the textbook example of a contraction. The pain started at my sides and worked it's way to the middle of my stomach. They started out like pretty mild menstrual cramps and then became completely unbearable. With my second labor, I suffered from pubic symphysis dysfunction and all of my contractions started in my lower back and moved to the front of my lower abdomen and into my pubic bone. They were really severe very quickly after my water broke. And with every single one I felt the urge to push. Of course, the doctors and nurses told me not to since I was only 4 cm dilated! I labored for 36 hours! I now wonder if I should have listened to my body and pushed a little it would have went faster. Who knows. Labor is a funny thing. I just learned that every labor and pregnancy will be different!
I agree with Vanessa, contractions with Pitocin versus without it are so so different....black and white. And with my first, it was back labor so it was also totally different. They were throbbing and long and it felt like my back was going to split open. With my home birth, the contractions felt like a deep, deep ache. Deep down inside my body, almost as if the sensation of my cervix spreading combined with my son descending were like my bottom was going to fall out...but in a good way. A productive way. Thinking back, they weren't painful as much as a feeling that snapped me into the present.
With my second, I felt only a long, long awful pain across my entire abdomen. From the outside, you could feel that my whole abdomen was rock hard and it felt like a charlie horse, only a million times worse. The pain didn't change or come and go, just remained for hours. On the monitors, it was showing that I was contracting every two minutes when I got to the hospital, but again to me the pain and hardness never stopped and started, just constant. With my first son, the pain was fairly textbook as menstrual pains that got worse, deeper, and closer in time as labor progressed.
With each of my four births, my contractions have been different. For number one, I was induced with Pitocin. I had been planning an unmedicated birth, but was told in my childbirth education classes that it was impossible to have Pitocin without an epidural, so each contraction was a fight for the birth I wanted. Ultimately, I had an epidural that didn't work, and I dilated completely unmedicated. The second time I was also induced with Pitocin, but was absolutely certain that I would have an unmedicated birth, so each contraction was a validation that I was strong, and could do it. With my third (I had become a doula and childbirth educator), I had absolute trust in my body, and each contraction literally felt orgasmic. They were intense, but after the peak of each one, I felt the same rush that I do after an orgasm. It was amazing! With the fourth, I was in complete denial for most of my very rapid labor, so each contraction was almost a surprise. I had intense back labor, but if I vocalized throughout the contraction it was bearable.
With my first, I felt no Braxton Hicks or at least I didn't know what I was feeling. My labor started with what I could only describe as a "funny feeling" in my belly...I didn't feel cramp-like sensations or hardening until later on. As I progressed, I definitely felt the tightening, hardening feeling with intense cramps but all in my abdomen area...nothing in my back. With this one, I have been having BH contractions for quite some time. They began early on for me and the sensation felt like the baby was doing a twirling or twisting motion. Eventually, I realized that they were BH contractions and felt the classic hardening, tightening in my abdomen.
With my first birth, they started out similar to menstrual cramps and gradually became more intense like extreme bowel movement cramps. It was that menstrual cramp feeling in the beginning, though, that distinguished them from the Braxton Hicks cramps I'd had through the pregnancy and let me know it was "real" labor. Once I was about halfway dilated it felt like one big constant contraction, with no rest in between, even though the monitors showed a brief break between them.The contractions felt different with my second birth, though, and I wasn't sure I was really in labor. They didn't feel the same way they did the first time around, and my BH contractions had been so intense and uncomfortable (painful, not just the tightening feeling) the last month or two of my pregnancy, that I constantly felt like I was in early labor. My baby was "sunny side up" that time too, so more of the pain was in my back. My mother and mother-in-law had told me they never knew when they were having contractions, just felt the pressure of pushing at the end. That astonished me. My mom literally never knew when she was having contractions, just knew that she "felt funny."
I am an old woman, and my kids are 14 1/2 and almost 11, so it is hard to remember the details of the sensation of contractions. I had a c-section after pushing non medicated for 5 hours with my fat, 9lb 37 week direct OP baby (occiput posterior -- baby who is facing up instead of back), and a non-medicated VBAC with my second, so feel like I really got a sense of what things felt like. They started as menstrual cramps, and an ache in my lower back, moving around and increasing in intensity deep in my pelvis. I did not have back labor with either, even the OP babe. I have to say that I did not think they were that bad, I mean, intense, yes, requiring deep focus and coping, yes, but the worst pain I ever felt? No! It was very freeing to surrender to the contractions, doing whatever felt good, no matter how crazy or silly it seemed. From my two datapoints, I seem to take forever to labor/dilate to 3 cm, and then go from 3-10 really fast! Labors last about 36 hours each, in both labors, I immersed myself in the tub, completely, except for my nose, when I had the intense contractions, removing all the sensory stimulation, ears underwater, eyes closed, remaining really loose. Alternately, I did a lot of deep vocalization. As I said, hard, yes, intense, yes, all encompassing, yes, body wracking, yes, but incredibly painful -- no. If I could, I would labor and birth once a year! No pregnancy, no baby to keep, just a big ole labor and birth! It was the hardest, most intense, but doable work I have ever done!