Making Sense of Different Types of Contractions

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Different Types Contractions

Maybe you have already been feeling some contractions or maybe you are scared and want to know what to expect. First, you should know that the uterus is made up of mostly muscle, and it is capable of contracting just like a muscle somewhere else in your body. The ability of the uterus to contract is what will likely help your baby be born. In this blog post, we discuss some of the types of contractions you might experience during pregnancy and labor, as well as talk through what to do about each one.

Braxton Hicks Contractions

You’ve probably heard of this contraction type—named for Dr. John Braxton Hicks, the British doctor who first described these contractions in the 1800s. You also might have heard these contractions called “false labor.” While it’s unlikely that you are really in labor, even if you have been having a lot of Braxton Hicks contractions, the term false labor makes it sound as though your body is not doing any work, which is not the case. For this reason, some people think of Braxton Hicks contractions as practice contractions or labor. Your uterus is practicing or warming up for the bigger contractions that could help baby be born.

Braxton Hicks contractions can feel like anything from a tiny twinge in one spot to a full tightening across your belly. Sometimes you will be able to feel them without putting a hand to your abdomen and sometimes you do not notice them until your hand is resting on your tummy. Most often, these contractions are painless—though that is not the case for everyone—and do not have a discernable pattern or rhythm.

People who have been pregnant before are more likely to notice Braxton Hicks contractions earlier in pregnancy, though some people never feel them at all. If you are having these contractions and they are bothersome, some things that might help are drinking more water to avoid dehydration and taking it easy, as sometimes lots of activity or stress can bring them on. Just about everyone’s experience of these contractions is within the range of normal, but as always, if you have questions, speak with your care provider.

Contractions in Early Labor

In early labor, contractions can actually bring about cervical dilation, the opening of the cervix through which baby will pass from your uterus into your vagina in order to be born. They can also feel a lot like a more intense version of Braxton Hicks contractions, but there are a few notable differences. First, it is much more likely that you will notice that these contractions are happening without putting your hand on your belly. Second, they tend to develop some type of rhythm or pattern, even if they are not coming very frequently or the pattern comes and goes. For instance, commonly early labor contractions are 10-12 minutes or more apart but might maintain that pattern for a few hours at a time. Third, labor contractions often increase in intensity or sensation, frequency, and length over time. They might even become painful. Another way to know if you are in early labor is to pay attention to other labor signs, such as loose stools, feeling of the baby dropping, and back pain or cramps.

You might deal with these contractions with any or all of the following coping strategies:

  • Breathing
  • Rest: if you can, try to go to sleep or just lie still and breathe deeply.
  • Distraction: do something—watch a favorite show, call a friend, cook something—to take your attention off your contractions.
  • Vocalizing: try making an “ohhhh” or “ahhh” sound, as loudly as you want to. Keep your voice low in pitch, as opposed to high and scream-like, and your mouth and jaw soft and open.
  • Movement: changing positions, dancing, and walking can all help alleviate the discomfort of early labor contractions.
  • Water: if your care provider signs off on it, you can take a bath or shower during early labor. Water, especially warm water, could feel great as contractions intensify.
  • Medication: depending on the length and intensity of your early labor contractions, you may want to discuss pain medication options with your care providers.

Contractions in Active Labor

Once your contractions get more intense and closer together, you are likely moving toward active labor. Depending on the position your baby is in, these contractions might be anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes long and could be a quite painful sensation of muscle tightening in your abdomen, pelvis, and back.

The first part of active labor, after you are dilated about six centimeters or more, will likely include contractions that average about a minute long and get closer together. In transition, contractions might be a little longer, likely the most intense or painful that they’ve been, and come very quickly, one right after the other. After transition, during the pushing phase, contractions might slow down, giving you space to rest between each one, and may be less intense than they were during transition. You can cope with these contractions using any of the strategies discussed above.

Contractions after Baby Is Born

Did you expect to be having contractions after baby was born? While it’s true that contractions continue in order to facilitate delivery of your placenta and to help your uterus avoid hemorrhage and shrink down after stretching out to accommodate your growing baby, the experience of these contractions varies widely. Some women do not feel the contractions after baby is born at all, while for others they are intensely painful or may last for weeks after birth, especially during breastfeeding, when release of the hormone oxytocin triggers them. Depending on the method of delivery, you might want pain medication or to use heat or cold packs to help with the discomfort of post-baby contractions.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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