Here's What Contractions Should Feel Like At First As Your Body Gears Up For Labor

Childbirth's a weird thing, right? You spend nine months preparing for labor and delivery, analyzing every creak and twinge for a sign of something wrong, but it can be really difficult to tell when labor begins. If you've been tolerating Braxton Hicks for so long you now have a skeptical view about actually being in labor, you'll want to know what real contractions feel like at first.

The lead-up to labor might give you a pretty good indication of whether you're experiencing labor pains. According to the Mayo Clinic, bloody show or your water breaking before the contractions hit will let you know when you should take them seriously. According to Georgia-based midwife Rachel Hart, who runs a practice called Birthing Way, labor contractions also become more intense while Braxton Hicks do not.

"Early labor and Braxton Hicks really can mimic each other. Toning contractions can be experienced like menstrual cramps and you can mistake it for labor," she tells Romper. "Contractions that are effective labor contractions will get longer and stronger. Usually, Braxton Hicks start in the evening and can last for hours and be regular, and they tell you that's the real thing. The other part of it is the intensity. [Labor contractions] would increase, and Braxton Hicks never increase in intensity."

Often, she continues, it's the second-time moms who have been through delivery before that have a difficult time discerning the difference between the two contractions. "I get a lot of moms, especially those who have already had babies, [say] that the Braxton Hicks start sooner than someone who’s a first-time mom because their body already has this muscle memory and is loosened up for labor, so they are more likely to experience them earlier," she says. "Also, labor is not labor without cervical effacement and dilation. If you’re not dilating then you're not in labor ... We could learn how to do our own cervical checks."


When assessing her patients, Hart says that a bloody show, however faint, makes her sit up and take notice when a patient says she's having contractions. It's a tell-tale sign that there's action in the cervix. "I’m paying more attention to bloody show, even light pink, because you're having that blood because your cervix is thinning or dilating," she says.

In the early stage of labor, which can last from eight to 12 hours, the most important thing laboring women can do is relax and pay attention. There's no need to grab your partner for a hell ride to the hospital at this point. Instead, the article noted, enjoy this stage in the comfort of your home while you can, and go about your familiar routine. Be sure to drink water, eat regularly, and conserve your energy for delivery.

Once your contractions reach 45 to 60 seconds in length and are about five minutes apart, you should calmly make your way to the hospital. This phase is known as active labor. Hopefully you have been able to figure out that you are in real labor before this point and haven't stubbornly stationed yourself at a break room table a la Pam from The Office. Using these tips, you can safely avoid giving birth in the back of a police car. Happy laboring!


Rachel Hart, Certified Professional Midwife