What Are Contractions? (2023)

Contractions are a normal part of pregnancy that occur closer to the baby’s due date, with some women experiencing them earlier than 37 weeks. Labor or uterine contractions happen when the muscles in your uterus tighten up and then relax. While the uterus is contracting, you may feel your abdomen harden and then soften when the uterus relaxes.

Uterine contractions cause the cervix to thin and dilate or open for childbirth. They also allow the baby to descend into the birth canal.

You can experience several types of contractions. But only two types determine if you are going into labor or not: true labor and false labor contractions.

True labor contractions are the ones that indicate real labor is on the horizon. They are more intense, closer together, and don’t go away. False contractions are less regular and not as strong, such as Braxton Hicks contractions or “practice” contractions, which typically happen several weeks before real labor. Although they are painful, they are not a sign of labor.

5 Things That Cause Contractions Before Labor

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of contractions often begin long before you head to the hospital or birthing center. In fact, this activity that’s taking place in your uterus is a strong indication that labor is on its way.

You can experience a variety of symptoms, but here are the most common signs you’re experiencing true labor contractions:

  • Pain in the lower back that radiates to the front
  • Pain in the pelvis and upper belly
  • Pressure in the pelvis
  • Pain that occurs in a regular pattern
  • Contractions that last from 60 to 90 seconds and get longer
  • Contractions that come every 5 to 10 minutes and get closer together over time and grow in intensity
  • Being unable to walk or carry on a conversation
  • Changing positions does not relieve pain

Diagnosing Contractions

Your doctor can diagnose contractions and determine if they are part of false or Braxton Hicks contractions or if they are true labor contractions. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) uses the following guidelines to diagnose contractions:

  • Timing and frequency of contractions: With true labor contractions, you will experience contractions that are closer together, have a pattern, and last between 60 and 90 seconds. Braxton Hicks contractions or false contractions present themselves with no pattern or regular timing.
  • Change with movement: No amount of walking, moving, or adjusting will deter true labor contractions. But false contractions often stop when you walk, rest, or change positions.
  • Strength of contractions: Painful and strong, true labor contractions steadily get stronger. In comparison, false contractions tend to be weak and mild in intensity.
  • Location of pain: Back labor pain is often a sign that you are experiencing true labor contractions. You will feel the contractions start in the back and move to the front. False contractions stay in the front.

Your doctor may use an external uterine monitoring system to track contractions if you are experiencing preterm contractions. During active labor, they may use a fetal monitoring machine to track contractions.


The most obvious cause of uterine contractions is your body preparing for childbirth. These are part of early and active labor.

But they can also happen if your body is not actively preparing for childbirth. These are called Braxton Hicks or false contractions. They can happen for a variety of reasons, including:

  • If you overexert yourself close to your due date either through exercise or just doing too much
  • If you are dehydrated
  • After having sex

And finally, preterm labor can also be a cause of contractions. These contractions happen before 37 weeks and require immediate attention from your doctor.

(Video) What Do Contractions Feel Like + What Happens During a Contraction


Contractions are often categorized by when they occur during pregnancy and how they feel.

According to the ACOG, there are two types of contractions: true labor contractions and false labor contractions. However, you can experience different stages of contractions under each category.

True Labor Contractions

True labor contractions may include preterm labor contractions, early labor contractions, and active labor contractions.

Preterm contractions begin before 37 weeks and could indicate preterm labor. But preterm labor does not automatically mean you will have a preterm birth, according to the ACOG.

If you are experiencing any signs of preterm labor before 37 weeks, talk to your doctor immediately. They will determine if your contractions are a sign of active preterm labor.

False Labor Contractions

False labor contractions generally refer to Braxton Hicks contractions, which can happen during the second and third trimester. These contractions trigger the uterus to tighten and loosen, but they are irregular and infrequent and don’t last as long as real contractions.

These contractions often feel more like mild menstrual cramps. These can happen when you’re active, if the baby is actively moving around, or if any pressure is placed on the uterus.

False Versus True Labor Pains


Contractions are a sign that the baby is on its way, sometimes sooner rather than later. And as uncomfortable and painful as contractions may be, they are a normal part of pregnancy. The good news? There are ways to cope.

Early Labor

If your contractions are far apart and are not increasing in intensity, you’re probably in early labor, and you are likely still at home. Most likely, your contractions are at least 10 minutes apart, so they feel manageable. The key to this phase is to alternate rest with activity. Here are some ways to cope with labor at this phase.

  • Low-impact exercise, such as walking
  • Prenatal yoga that focuses on breathing and preparing for childbirth
  • Practice with your birthing ball during contractions, so you’re ready for active labor
  • Daily relaxation exercises
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Staying hydrated and remembering to eat

Active and Transitional Labor

At this point, you may be headed to the hospital, birthing center, or awaiting your birthing team to arrive at your home. Depending on the length of your contractions and intensity, you will need to adjust these strategies. Some of the following may not be possible if your contractions are close together:

  • Take a warm bath
  • Get on a hands and knees position and practice deep, rhythmic breathing while doing pelvic tilts
  • Use visualization
  • Practice rhythmic breathing by breathing in slowly during a contraction and releasing the tension by exhaling
  • Keep your body moving by walking, swaying, rocking on a birthing ball, or squatting in a birthing position
  • Ask your partner to give you a back massage
  • Practice progressive relaxation by tensing and releasing specific areas of the body, starting from the head down or from the feet and working your way up
  • If you’re in bed, try to lay on your side instead of your back

What Really Happens During Childbirth

(Video) Childbirth Class: What do contractions feel like?

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7 Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. March of Dimes. Contractions and Signs of Labor.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. True Vs. False Labor.

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Am I in Labor?

  4. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to Tell When Labor Begins.

  5. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Preterm Labor and Birth.

  6. Lamaze International. What to Do When You’re in Early Labor.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Labor without Medication: Coping Skills.

(Video) Pregnancy - What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

What Are Contractions? (1)

By Sara Lindberg
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on health, fitness, nutrition, parenting, and mental health.

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How do I know if I'm having contractions? ›

A contraction is when the muscles of your uterus tighten up like a fist and then relax. Contractions help push your baby out. When you're in true labor, your contractions last about 30 to 70 seconds and come about 5 to 10 minutes apart. They're so strong that you can't walk or talk during them.

How do contractions feel when they first start? ›

Your contractions may feel like cramps in your lower stomach and can start off feeling like period pain. You may have dull lower back pain or pain in your inner thigh that you feel down your legs. At first, your contractions will be short and around 30 minutes apart.

What does contractions feel like? ›

Labor contractions cause discomfort or a dull ache in your back and lower abdomen, along with pressure in the pelvis. Some women might also feel pain in their sides and thighs. Some women describe contractions as strong menstrual cramps, while others describe them as strong waves that feel like diarrhea cramps.

What causes contractions? ›

What causes contractions? Contractions start when the pituitary gland releases the hormone oxytocin. This stimulates the muscles in the uterus to start tightening and relaxing. The contractions make the top of the uterus tighten to push the baby down.

What are 3 signs that labor is approaching? ›

Four early signs of labor
  • Cramps. Some women feel the type of cramps that usually happen with menstruation. ...
  • Pelvic pressure. You may start to feel pressure in your vagina or pelvis. ...
  • Loss of the mucus plug. ...
  • Changes in your vaginal discharge.
Apr 22, 2021

How do I know I'm dilating? ›

What Are Signs of Cervical Dilation?
  • Signs of Cervical Dilation. ...
  • #1: “Lightening Crotch” or Vaginal Pain. ...
  • #2: Backache and Menstrual Like Cramps. ...
  • #3: Bloody Show – A Sign of Cervical Dilation. ...
  • #4: Less Talking, But Possibly More Noise. ...
  • #5: Intuition. ...
  • #6: Less 'Politeness' – a Sign of Cervical Dilation.
Jul 6, 2021

When should I go to the hospital for contractions? ›

When you have regular, painful contractions lasting one minute each and occurring at least every five minutes for more than two hours, it's time to go to the hospital. This is the transition from early to active labor.

How painful are early contractions? ›

Are contractions painful? Although they're usually painful, between each contraction you may not feel much pain at all. They may remind you of period pains or feel much more painful. Every woman's experience is different, as the intensity can vary a lot.

What does baby do during contractions? ›

How Does Baby Move During Labor? As your labor progresses, your infant will be doing the best he can to push the process along. To start the dilation of the cervix, your baby's head presses into the birth canal. Infants usually twist and turn during labor to find the easiest way to squeeze through.

Do babies move during contractions? ›

Changes in baby movement

The uterus will relax between successive contractions. The baby will keep moving until the labor begins, and this movement will continue during the early labor. However, the movement pattern may change. Instead of kicking the womb, the baby may squirm or shuffle.

What are the true signs of labor? ›

The True Signs Of Labor
  • You feel the muscles tight up and then relax. These contractions will start regularly and get strong. ...
  • You feel pain in your belly and lower back. There's not much if anything that can alleviate this pain – in any position.
  • Your mucus changes to a brownish or reddish discharge. ...
  • Your water breaks.
Apr 9, 2021

Can you sleep through contractions? ›

Our general rule is to sleep as long as possible if you're starting to feel contractions at night. Most of the time you can lay down and rest during early labor. If you wake up in the middle of the night and notice contractions, get up and use the bathroom, drink some water, and GO BACK TO BED.

What week do real contractions start? ›

For many women, real contractions start at around the 40th week of pregnancy. Real contractions that begin before the 37th week can be classified as premature labor.

Can you tell if your baby will come early? ›

Warning Signs of Premature Labor

Menstrual-like cramps felt in the lower abdomen that may come and go or be constant. Low dull backache felt below the waistline that may come and go or be constant. Pelvic pressure that feels like your baby is pushing down. This pressure comes and goes.

How do most contractions start? ›

Labor contractions are the periodic tightening and relaxing of the uterine muscle, the largest muscle in a woman's body. Something triggers the pituitary gland to release a hormone called oxytocin that stimulates the uterine tightening. It is difficult to predict when true labor contractions will begin.

What triggers labor? ›

Researchers now believe that when a baby is ready for life outside his mother's uterus, his body releases a tiny amount of a substance that signals the mother's hormones to begin labor (Condon, Jeyasuria, Faust, & Mendelson, 2004). In most cases, your labor will begin only when both your body and your baby are ready.

What does pre labor look like? ›

Early labor

You'll likely feel mild, irregular contractions. As your cervix begins to open, you might notice a clear pink or slightly bloody discharge from your vagina. This is likely the mucus plug that blocks the cervical opening during pregnancy. How long it lasts: Early labor is unpredictable.

How do you know labor is 24 hours away? ›

As the countdown to birth begins, some signs that labor is 24 to 48 hours away can include low back pain, weight loss, diarrhea — and of course, your water breaking.

How dilated should I be at 38 weeks? ›

It may be hard to talk or move easily. At this point, your cervix will be dilated 3 to 10 centimeters. (Dilating one centimeter an hour is textbook, but like in early labor, it's different for everyone.) If you're opting for an epidural, the time is…now!

Can checking your own cervix cause labor? ›

Checking for dilation does not induce labor unless the exam is used in conjunction with one or more common labor induction methods. A common intervention that may be offered during a cervical exam is called a “membrane sweep,” which is a procedure that can be performed if you are at least one centimeter dilated.

How quickly do you dilate Once you start? ›

The active stage of labor can range from a woman dilating anywhere from 0.5 cm per hour up to 0.7 cm per hour. How fast your cervix dilates will also depend on if it's your first baby or not. Mothers who have delivered a baby before tend to move more quickly through labor.

What is the 5 11 rule? ›

Other ways to recognize labor:

The 5-1-1 Rule: The contractions come every 5 minutes, lasting 1 minute each, for at least 1 hour. Fluids and other signs: You might notice amniotic fluid from the sac that holds the baby. This doesn't always mean you're in labor, but could mean it's coming.

How many days can you go with contractions? ›

It may last up to 2 to 3 days. Contractions are mild to moderate and shorter (about 30 to 45 seconds). You can usually keep talking during them. Contractions may also be irregular, about 5 to 20 minutes apart.

How long should you stay at home with contractions? ›

If you came to the hospital while in early labor, your doctor may ask you to labor at home until your contractions are stronger. Many women stay at home during early labor. This is often the longest part of the birthing process. It may last up to 2 to 3 days.

How long does it take to dilate from 1 to 10? ›

When your baby is ready to begin the journey through the birth canal, your cervix dilates from fully closed to 10 centimeters. This process can take hours, days, or even weeks. But once you hit active labor – about 6 cm dilated – it's usually just a matter of hours before you reach full dilation.

What are some signs that labor is nearing? ›

Signs that labor is coming soon but hasn't started yet
  • Dilation and other cervical changes. ...
  • Braxton Hicks contractions. ...
  • Aches, pains and looser joints. ...
  • Stomach issues. ...
  • Lightening. ...
  • Nesting instincts. ...
  • You start to experience real contractions. ...
  • You feel consistent pain in your belly and lower back.

How do you survive contractions? ›

Medicine-free ways to handle pain during labor include:
  1. hypnosis.
  2. yoga.
  3. meditation.
  4. walking.
  5. massage or counterpressure.
  6. changing position.
  7. taking a bath or shower.
  8. listening to music.

Do I need to shave before delivery? ›

Once upon a time, hospitals shaved pregnant women before delivery. Now, shaving isn't recommended at all.

Can dehydration cause labor contractions? ›

Dehydration is a common trigger for Braxton-Hicks contractions. It's important to know the difference between Braxton-Hicks and real labor contractions. In general, Braxton-Hicks contractions: Don't become more intense over time.

What are two signs that labor is beginning? ›

Some early signs of labor may include: Strong, frequent contractions. Bloody show. Your water breaking.

Do contractions feel like poop cramps? ›

During the pushing stage, you will most often feel a strong expulsion sensation with (and sometimes between) contractions, a feeling very much like having to poop. It's not uncommon for contractions to slow down quite a bit during this time, allowing rest in between.

How far can you dilate without contractions? ›

The cervix can be dilated to 1 centimeter for weeks before the beginning of labor. This extent of dilation only signals that the cervix is starting to prepare for labor. Most pregnant women spend some time wondering when they will go into labor, especially as the due date draws near.

What should you not do during contractions? ›

Breathing too quickly (which looks a lot like hyperventilating) and holding your breath can increase your pain, not to mention also make you feel lightheaded.

Will laying down slow contractions? ›

Spending most of your time in bed, especially lying on your back, or sitting up at a small angle, interferes with labor progress: Gravity works against you, and the baby might be more likely to settle into a posterior position. Pain might increase, especially back pain.

Can labor start suddenly? ›

Labour can start very quickly, but is often slow at the start (particularly if it's your first baby). Sometimes it can start without you realising it.

How far apart will early contractions be? ›

The early or latent phase is when labor begins. You'll have mild contractions that are 15 to 20 minutes apart and last 60 to 90 seconds. Your contractions will become more regular until they are less than 5 minutes apart.

What does it feel like when baby drops? ›

Once your baby drops, you might notice a lot of increased pressure in your pelvis. This may be a time when you develop a significant pregnancy “waddle” as you adjust. This is probably the same feeling as walking around with what feels like a bowling ball between your legs.

How long are contractions in the beginning? ›

Each contraction usually begins gently, builds up to a peak and then tails off. At the start of the first stage: they may last about 40 to 50 seconds. you may get one every 10 minutes.

Can you have contractions without knowing? ›

It can be hard to know if you're really in labor. Sometimes your uterus contracts, but labor hasn't started yet. This is called “false labor.” These contractions are called Braxton Hicks contractions. They can occur as early as the second trimester.

How long do contractions last to start? ›

For most first-time moms, early labor lasts about 6 to 12 hours. You can spend this time at home or wherever you're most comfortable. During early labor: You may feel mild contractions that come every 5 to 15 minutes and last 60 to 90 seconds.

Can you sleep through early contractions? ›

Our general rule is to sleep as long as possible if you're starting to feel contractions at night. Most of the time you can lay down and rest during early labor. If you wake up in the middle of the night and notice contractions, get up and use the bathroom, drink some water, and GO BACK TO BED.

Do contractions feel like period cramps? ›

Contractions (belly tightening) are the main sign of labor. They last from 30 to 60 seconds and might feel like period cramps at first. False labor pains (called "Braxton Hicks" contractions) can happen anytime in pregnancy, but are more common toward the end.

How painful are contractions? ›

Some people say that contractions feel like intense menstrual cramps while others describe lots of pressure and back pain. Personally, I describe a contraction in active labor (6cm and beyond) as an all-encompassing kind of pain.

What week is most common to go into labor? ›

When are most babies born?
  • 57.5 percent of all recorded births occur between 39 and 41 weeks.
  • 26 percent of births occur at 37 to 38 weeks.
  • About 7 percent of births occur at weeks 34 to 36.
  • About 6.5 percent of births occur at week 41 or later.
  • About 3 percent of births occur before 34 weeks of pregnancy.
Feb 27, 2020

How can I speed up dilation? ›

Getting up and moving around may help speed dilation by increasing blood flow. Walking around the room, doing simple movements in bed or chair, or even changing positions may encourage dilation. This is because the weight of the baby applies pressure to the cervix.

What positions help you dilate? ›

Try being upright One of your biggest allies is gravity.

When you are upright—standing, sitting or kneeling—the weight of your baby presses on the cervix, encouraging it to open.

Do contractions feel like you have to poop? ›

During the pushing stage, you will most often feel a strong expulsion sensation with (and sometimes between) contractions, a feeling very much like having to poop. It's not uncommon for contractions to slow down quite a bit during this time, allowing rest in between.

What sleeping position is best for contractions? ›

Lying on your side is one of the best labor positions to try when you need a rest. That said, just because you're lying down doesn't mean your body is taking a break from labor; on the contrary, it can actually help baby move into the ready position.


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