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What does a contraction feel like?

Understanding Contractions: Your Guide to the Waves of Labour

What exactly happens during a contraction, and how do you know when it's happening? Well first we need to explain that there are 2 distinct stages of labour and the contractions will be different for both. The first stage is when your uterus muscles are moving upwards towards the top of the uterus which helps open and soften your cervix to allow your baby to move down through your vagina. The second stage is when your uterus starts to tighten from the top, now that the muscles fibres are bunched together at the top, they have the power and force to push baby down through your vagina.

Imagine it as a wave rolling down from the top of your uterus. If you place your hand on your belly during a contraction, you'll notice it first harden and then gradually soften as the contraction subsides.

As labour progresses, these waves increase in frequency and intensity. Interestingly, the sensations between contractions lessens, creating a unique rhythm. These contractions persist until your baby's arrival.

What do contractions feel like?

They vary for each woman. Some describe them as stomach cramps, akin to period pain, while others experience dull backaches or aching inner thighs that extend down their legs.

Initially during the first stage (muscles moving upwards), contractions are short and spaced around 30 minutes apart and you may feel them mostly in the front of your bump. But as labour advances into the second stage (baby being pushed down by the muscles), they intensify, draw closer, and may be felt more in your bum. This is normally when you might say...."I need a poo"!

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

These sneaky contractions happen throughout pregnancy but often go unnoticed until the second trimester. They serve to tone the uterus but don't actually prompt cervical dilation. Often mistaken for the real deal, they're sometimes dubbed 'false labour' especially for first time parents who have never experienced this sensation before.

How do you distinguish between Braxton Hicks and true labour? Here's the key: Braxton Hicks contractions tend to fade if you change positions or take a warm shower, unlike actual labour. Plus you'll feel them mostly around the middle front of your bump.

What should I do when contractions start

If you've taken a Hypnobirthing class as your birth prep then you'll know everything there is to know about Oxytocin. Now is your time to get it flowing! Oxytocin, the love hormone is responsible for your uterus contracting and triggers the release of endorphins, nature pain reliever, it is the most important hormone in labour and YOU can influence its production.

Here are my top Oxytocin Boosting activities:

  1. Kiss and cuddle a loved one

  2. Receive a light tough massage

  3. Have a warm bath with candles and lavender

When should I head to my chosen place of birth?

If you've chosen to birth outside of your home you can start to head to your chosen birth place when contractions become more powerful and regular. However, know that often the change of scenery may slow down progress momentarily, so have your Oxytocin toolkit ready for any environment and any type of birth. Great things to take with you that help the continual flow of oxytocin are:

  1. Eye mask

  2. Ear phones

  3. your own pillow / cosy dressing gown

How to ease the intensity of a contraction?

There are lots of ways to change the perception of how a contraction feels. If you want to explore non medical methods, the following are evidenced based and tried and tested:

  1. Water Submersion / warm shower

  2. Light Touch massage

  3. Hypnobirthing

  4. Visualisations and guided meditations

  5. Counter pressure

  6. Acupressure

  7. Up and Down Breathing

  8. TENS machine

Most the techniques above apply the Pain gate theory, which demonstrates that the spinal cord contains "gates" that can either block or allow pain signals to reach the brain. According to this theory, non-painful sensations can override and diminish the perception of pain. Essentially, when other sensory information (like rubbing an injured area) reaches the brain before the pain signals, it can close the "gate" and reduce the feeling of pain. It highlights the role of the central nervous system in regulating and modulating the experience of pain.

Give me the drugs!

There are of course medical forms of pain relief too. These should be researched fully before consenting so that you can make an informed choice and make the decision that is right for you

  1. Entonox (Gas and Air)

  2. Opioid Injections

  3. Epidural

  4. Combined Spinal-Epidural (CSE)

  5. Mobile Epidural

You can do anything for 1 minute

In a lour that last 15 hours, only 3 of those will be experiencing a contraction. Each one last approximately 1 minute. You can do anything for one minute. With right information, training and support team around you anything is possible.

Learn more about birth, you body, your mind and your rights in birth by booking onto one of Your Birth Stories group or private course in everything antenatal and Hypnobirthing.

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