pregnant woman laying on white bed uncomfortably holding belly with both hands

Real Contractions Can Literally Take Your Breath Away, & Here's Why

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Since this was my first baby, I’m not sure if it was because I was induced with Pitocin and the foley balloon or if it's just how contractions are, but I thought my insides were on fire and I was going to rip in half while in active labor. Contractions in general are no joke, but with my experience with false labor, I was able to get through them. Active labor, not so much. But do real contractions make it hard to breathe? Is that how you know it’s show time? To say my contractions in the hospital took my breath away is an understatement. But it’s a common question many first time moms have — especially if they're in false labor or are just having some general cramping or even lightning crotch.

Dr. Yvonne Bohn, an OB-GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Romper in an email interview that real contractions definitely affect your breathing. “The pain is so intense it takes your breath away. Women may start to panic and breath too shallow and quickly. Slow deep breathing is a better way to manage the pain and to help from feeling breathless."

So what is the difference between real contractions and false labor? Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Romper that false labor can occur before labor actually begins. “False labor is described as irregular uterine pains or contractions that do not increase in severity and frequency. False labor contractions can occur every 10 to 20 minutes for a few hours and then stop all together. False labor creates a lot of confusion for expecting moms,” Ross explains. And in my experience, they also don’t tend to affect your breathing quite as much.


As far as Braxton Hicks, which I thought was what I was feeling when I was in false labor, they don’t actually hurt. “Braxton Hicks contractions are painless contractions where real contractions are painful. When you experience a Braxton Hicks contraction you will see your uterus tighten and become hard like a rock, but it is not associated with pain,” Ross says. “When you experience a Braxton contraction, they occur [in] irregular intervals, meaning there is no pattern to the frequency of Braxton Hicks contractions. They tend to be very subtle and most pregnant women don’t realize they are having them. Real uterine contractions start as a menstrual cramp and continue getting more intense and painful, unlike Braxton Hicks contractions.”

I was told throughout my pregnancy that another way of knowing the difference between false labor, Braxton Hicks, or real contractions is if you’re able to talk through them. And according to Parents, that’s pretty spot on, since “A contraction is considered strong if you can't talk through it,” the website noted.

So if you can't breathe or talk through your cramps, it's probably a safe bet you're in labor — especially if they become closer together. Remember to try to take long breaths during the contractions to help you get through them (and so you don't pass out), even though it will be hard to breathe. You got this, mama.


Dr. Yvonne Bohn, OB-GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center

Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center

This post was originally published on Sept. 12, 2018. It was updated on Aug. 22, 2019.

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