As the due date approaches, expectant mothers are often apprehensive about the onset of contractions. Understanding what the different types of contractions mean can help ease anxiety and make the labor and delivery process smoother.
Your mind is usually preoccupied with the conclusion of your pregnancy: labor, delivery, and that precious baby. And what is it that will lead you to success? Contractions.
Think of contractions as your body’s natural way of encouraging labor and the delivery of your baby. Dr. Bart Putterman, an OB-GYN at Houston’s Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women, explains that contractions of the uterine muscles assist labor progress because the uterus protects and cradles the baby. Your baby will be in the best possible position to enter the delivery canal as your uterus contracts.
Yet, just because you’re feeling contractions before your due date doesn’t indicate you’re about to give birth early. It’s very possible that your body is simply getting ready for the big event. Discover the meanings and variations of common contractions here.
Contractions and Their Meanings
Not all contractions indicate that labor has begun; some are simply the uterus getting ready to give birth. Learn the differences between them here.
Throughout pregnancy, your tummy may feel tight and hard, indicating that your body is preparing for labor and delivery. “The uterus is exercising for the grand finale,” explains Dr. Paul du Treil, head of maternity and child health at New Orleans’ Touro Infirmary. These amorphous pangs herald the arrival of the main event.
Constipation, gas pains, dehydration, and constriction are all factors that might lead to premature contractions. These contractions in early pregnancy may feel like light menstruation cramps and are usually harmless. But, if these signs are followed by bleeding, stomach pain, or spotting, you should make an appointment with your doctor or midwife to rule out an ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage.
An orgasmic experience, with or without penetration, does not raise the risk of preterm labor in a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy. Even close to your due date, having sex while pregnant is not likely to bring on labor, but you could notice some Braxton Hicks contractions or some faint spotting afterward.
In a couple of hours, you should notice that your contractions have eased. But, you should seek medical attention if you experience any other concerning symptoms at the same time (such as bleeding, pain, vaginal discharge, or a decrease in fetal movements).
Sometimes the first signs of labor are somewhat painful twinges of discomfort in the belly. They’ll start out mild but eventually escalate to something more painful, like severe abdominal cramping or diarrhea. This is the beginning of active labor when contractions will increase in frequency, intensity, and duration.
Contractions in labor can be indicated by:
- Consistent and powerful contractions occur at regular intervals.
- Your cervix opens, or there is a massive hemorrhage.
- Stomach pain that travels to the lower back.
Self-testing is the quickest and most reliable technique to determine if your contractions are the real deal during labor. Lay down and put your hand on your uterus. Pain that radiates throughout the uterus is a telltale sign of contractions. Contractions are unlikely if there’s hardness in some areas and suppleness in others; it could just be the baby shifting positions.
Also, if the contractions cease when you shift positions or increase your level of activity, or if they gradually lessen without becoming more frequent or intense, then they are probably Braxton Hicks. Think about how much you are hurting and how uncomfortable you are. A clear sign of labor contractions is the onset of pain and a gradual but steady increase in intensity.
Braxton Hicks contractions
Beginning in the second trimester, some pregnant women suffer infrequent contractions known as Braxton Hicks. They can last from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, rarely cause discomfort, and appear at random (although things like exercise or sex, and orgasm can trigger them).
When you start having Braxton Hicks contractions, it means that your uterus is getting ready to give birth. If you’re experiencing cramping, try relaxing methods like taking a hot bath, drinking lots of water, emptying your bladder, and practicing rhythmic breathing.
Consistent contractions (those occurring every 10 minutes or less) before 37 weeks of pregnancy may be a symptom of preterm labor. If you start having contractions, let your doctor or midwife know because they may want to examine you. Your healthcare practitioner may decide to delay the start of labor if they think that your contractions indicate premature labor.
Overextension, dehydration, and stress may all play a role in causing the contractions you’re experiencing.
Pain in the back, or even the lower back specifically, is a common symptom of labor. This pain may be mild and radiate from the uterus, or it may be strong and localized. Back labor is suspected when there is severe, persistent back discomfort.
The location of the infant in the delivery canal is a common cause of back labor. Occiput posterior (OP) presentation, in which the baby’s head is facing the mother rather than the father, is associated with more discomfort during labor.
Some laboring women, however, experience a more pronounced backache during contractions. This discomfort may or may not ease as labor proceeds. Speak to your delivery team about pain management strategies; they may suggest medication or non-drug approaches to alleviate back labor discomfort.
As contractions of labor begin, what should you do?
When contractions in labor begin, make a note of how long they persist and how much time passes between them. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to double-check with your doctor or midwife. If your contractions last approximately a minute, are regular and occur more frequently than once every five minutes, you are in active labor.
Unless early contractions are excruciating or you live far from the hospital or birth center, your doctor or midwife may urge you to stay home until active labor begins. “There may be a period where the energy switches, and you can’t do anything other than labor,” says Siobhan Kubesh, a trained midwife at OB-GYN North in Austin, Texas. Most people head to the nearest hospital or birthing center when that time comes.
While giving birth for the first time, your body may need time adjusting to its labor rhythm. It could take a few hours to a day or more to finish the job from start to finish, depending on how complicated it is. In subsequent pregnancies, you can experience significantly shorter labor. Dr. du Triel notes that, in general, labor is shorter with subsequent children. They can go fast into active labor because “the parent’s body has done this previously and remembers the process.”