Even if you didn’t know much about pregnancy and birth when you conceived, you were probably aware of contractions — your body’s uncomfortable but essential means of pushing your baby down the birth canal and out into the world. But you may not have known that there are several types of contractions, and experiencing them doesn’t always mean you’re about to give birth. From what contractions feel like to how to know you’re actually in labor, here are the basics you need to know.
The Types of Contractions
There are three kinds of contractions you may experience during pregnancy:
- Practice contractions, a.k.a., Braxton Hicks contractions:These can occur any time after the middle of your pregnancy (or not at all). Practice contractions might help to get the cervix ripe — but they don’t actually cause cervical dilation or effacement that occurs during labor.
- False labor contractions:These contractions are irregular and usually stop if you change positions. They may be accompanied by other false labor signs.
- Labor contractions:In the weeks before birth, you’ll likely also experience many common signs of real labor that lead up to real labor contractions. You’ll know you’re experiencing the contractions of real labor because they:
- Intensify with activity, rather than ease up, and aren’t relieved by a change in position.
- Become progressively more frequent, intense and generally (but not always) more regular, usually lasting about 30 to 70 seconds each. Every contraction won’t necessarily be more painful or longer than the last one, but the intensity does build up as real labor progresses. Frequency doesn’t always increase in regular, perfect even intervals, either — but it does increase.
- Produce a pinkish or blood-streaked “bloody show.”
- May be accompanied by an upset stomach, cramps or diarrhea.
- May be accompanied by a rupture of your membranes (commonly referred to as your “water breaking”). However this only happens before labor begins in about 15 percent of labors; in many others, the membranes rupture spontaneously during labor or are ruptured artificially by your practitioner.
What Causes Labor Contractions?
No one knows for exactly what triggers real labor contractions (and you’re likely more concerned with the “when” than the “why” anyway), but it’s believed that a combination of factors work together. This very intricate process begins with the fetus, whose brain sets off a relay of chemical messages (which probably translate into something like “Mom, get me out of here!”) that kick off a chain reaction of hormones in the mother. These hormonal changes in turn pave the way for the work of prostaglandins and oxytocin, substances that trigger contractions and when all systems are “go”.
What Do Labor Contractions Feel Like?
Early labor contractions feel like gastrointestinal upset, heavy menstrual cramps or lower abdominal pressure. Pain may be just in the lower abdomen or in the lower back and abdomen, and it may also radiate down the legs (particularly the upper thighs). (Location, however, is not the most reliable indication of labor — false labor contractions may also be felt in these places — so you’re really looking for frequency, intensity and regularity to determine whether you’re in labor.)
When to Call Your Practitioner
Your practitioner has likely told you when to call if you think you’re in labor (when contractions are five to seven minutes apart, for instance). Don’t wait for perfectly even intervals; they may never come. If you’re not sure that you’re in real labor but the contractions are coming pretty regularly, call anyway. Concerned it’s the middle of the night? Don’t feel guilty about waking your doctor (people who deliver babies for a living don’t expect to work only 9 to 5). And don’t be embarrassed if it’s a false alarm (you won’t be the first or the last expecting mom to misjudge her labor signs). It’s always best to err on the side of caution and call.
On the call your practitioner will want you to answer a few questions, not only to provide information but also to assess your condition by the tone of your voice. She’ll probably be able to tell, as you talk through a contraction, whether it’s the real thing — but only if you don’t try to cover up the pain in the name of good phone manners. So be honest about your feelings and levels of pain.
When to Head to The Hospital Immediately
Be sure to call your practitioner right away — and if you can’t reach her, head for the hospital — in the following instances:
- Contractions are increasingly strong but you haven’t yet reached 38 weeks (you may be experiencing preterm labor).
- Your water breaksbut labor hasn’t begun.
- Your water breaks and it has a greenish-brown tint.
- You feel the umbilical cord slip into your cervix or vaginal canal (it could be cord prolapse).
How Long Is the Average Labor Contraction?
The average contraction can vary in length, intensity and frequency dependent on your stage of labor:
- Early labor: Each contraction usually lasts about 30 to 45 seconds.
- Active labor:Contractions become increasingly more intense, frequent and longer, lasting around 40 to 60 seconds each.
- Transitional labor:Contractions suddenly pick up in intensity and frequency, with each lasting about 60 to 90 seconds.
- Pushing and delivery:Contractions in this second stage of labor last 60 to 90 seconds, but are sometimes further apart and possibly less painful.
Is It OK to Have Contractions After Sex?
You might also notice that your uterus contracts after you orgasm. Try not to worry (orgasm itself is a contraction of the uterus, after all!). Following intercourse, many moms experience contractions that can be powerful and last as long as a half hour. Even if you’re nearing your due date, they won’t induce labor and aren’t harmful in a normal pregnancy. So unless your practitioner has advised that you avoid orgasm during pregnancy (often because you’re at risk for preterm labor or miscarriage), sex is safe during pregnancy and there’s no reason to be concerned about these types of contractions following intercourse.
How to Start Contractions
If you’ve passed the 40-week mark and are officially overdue, you might be wondering how you can start contractions and get this show on the road, already. There are a few techniques that may induce labor naturally, including using castor oil, acupuncture and spicy foods. While none of these methods are guaranteed to work, you might want to consider giving them a shot, but only with the OK of your practitioner.Leave a reply →