Contractions: depicting what they really are

Contractions! Women would love to know what contractions feel like to better prepare themselves and know what to expect. will help you solve this mystery.

Is it normal to feel contractions during pregnancy?

Some will never feel contractions until it is time to give birth, while others will feel them after the first couple of weeks. The pain may resemble premenstrual cramps, hunger pangs or a hardening of the stomach. Contractions are normal as long as they remain painless, rare (no more than fifteen a day), irregular and disappear as quickly as they appeared. Nonetheless, you should take note of the time of day or what you're doing while the contractions occur.

Most of the time, this is a normal and natural reaction of your body, but it wouldn't hurt to talk to your doctor. "The uterus muscle is changing in volume, shrinking, hardening and relaxing", say René Frydman and Christine Schilte in their book Attendre bébé (Waiting for baby). Some women may have to take a leave of absence from work because they are experiencing too many contractions and these may work on the cervix (without necessarily dilating), creating an opening and risking a miscarriage.

A false contraction?

Amazingly, it is possible for women to feel “false contractions”, also called Braxton-Hicks contractions, throughout their pregnancy. These contractions are of low intensity and painless. In fact, women feel their belly tightening up and that’s exactly what’s happening! The uterus hardens for 20 to 30 seconds. We call them “false” because they do not dilate the cervix. Even if you have felt false contractions during your pregnancy, it will not influence the intensity, length or steadiness of the “real” contractions.

Real contractions

“Will I recognize a real contraction?” and “How will I know if the real labour has begun?”  are the first-time mothers’ two main questions. Here are some good clues:

  • Labour will be accompanied by steady and painful contractions.
  • The contractions that dilate the cervix will become closer together, last longer and become more painful as time goes by.
  • Taking a bath or a shower may help you determine whether the real labour has begun. If the contractions start to fade, slow down or even disappear because of the effect of water, there is no use in rushing to a hospital. But be careful: If real labour has begun and these are real contractions, they may intensify in length and in pain and this may accelerate the labour process.
Where does it hurt?

Contractions start in the abdominal muscles, but some women may feel pain in the kidney region. We say women “give birth by the kidneys”. In fact, the baby’s head is pressing at the base of the sacrum, a region that holds many nerve terminals.

A necessary “pain”

Delivery hurts, but remember that it is a positive pain, since the outcome is an adorable little being that will finally see day. Birthing pains are the only ones to “make sense” physiologically since they are announcing the arrival of a baby. Remember that it's a joyful event. What the baby goes through during labour is an incredible event worthy of an Olympic medal!

Ugly stress!

The adrenaline rush created by the overwhelming stress during delivery works to stop endorphin production (to support the pain) and counteracts the effects of the oxytocin that contributes to contractions of the uterus.

How to time your contractions

Finally! The real labour begins. To monitor your contractions, count from the beginning of the first contraction up until the beginning of the following one. If this is your first pregnancy, wait until the contractions are 30 or 40 seconds long and 5 minutes apart and have been so for the last two hours before heading to a hospital. If this is your second (or third…) pregnancy, you may leave after an hour.

You’re hesitating? Call the maternity department, a birthing home or your midwife and they will help you demystify the contractions… or the labour.

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