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What do contractions feel like?

Section: Labour & Birth
What do contractions feel like?

Forget biceps, triceps and quads, the strongest muscle in the human body is a women-only affair. 

It’s the muscle inside your womb. And boy, it needs to be strong. When the time comes to give birth, your uterine muscle is responsible for moving your baby out of your womb and into the birth canal. How does it do it? By contracting…

The tightening movement starts off feeling like a period pain and gradually becomes more intense and regular

‘When you have a contraction, your uterine muscle is tightening up,’ explains midwife Tracey Hunter.

It works in a unique way. If you exercised any other muscle in your body, you would tighten it to make it shorter, and then relax it so it returns to its normal length. But each time the uterine muscle contracts during labour, it gets slightly shorter, so each contraction makes the uterus tighter. This is called retraction, and it’s what nudges your baby from your womb and into the world.

§This tightening movement starts off feeling like a period pain and gradually becomes more intense and regular. Some of us will feel pain in our lower back, others in our sides, and some feel it all the way round.

What you experience is unique to you, because your body produces hormones called endorphins, which act as painkillers. These are very powerful and help lessen the pain sensation for some women, although others have a lower pain threshold and will be more affected by contractions. 


So the best way for you to cope with contractions may be different to your sister, or your best friend, or any other mum. 

And contractions change as you progress through labour, so what helps you at the beginning might need tweaking towards the end. You need a toolkit of tricks and tips that you can try to find what works for you. The good news is that contractions typically start in a gentle way and build up their intensity gradually, so you’ll have time to experiment.

How to cope with contractions

Walk around

The gentle rhythm of a potter around the house or garden can distract you from the pain. It also keeps you upright, letting gravity help the birthing process along.

Apply a compress 

Gentle heat on your back can ease muscle tension, but it’s important it’s warm, not hot, as you don’t want to overheat your baby. ‘Ask your midwife to show you the correct temperature,’ says Tracey.

Use a TENS machine

This sends electrical pulses around your lower back, which help to interrupt the pain messages. Hire an Elle TENS machine for six weeks for £27.50, or buy it for £71.50, from

Try hypnobirthing 

'This teaches you how to relax,’ says Tracey. The easiest way to learn the technique is to listen to a hypnobirthing CD every night. When you listen to the CD in labour, your body will automatically relax. Try Colour and Calmness, Hypnobirthing Relaxation for Birth, by Katharine Graves (£9.97,

Sit on a birth ball

This puts you in a position that may help during the first stage of labour. And if you gently move your hips in a circular motion it can help your baby’s head slip down onto your cervix. Another position to try is to kneel and lean over the ball. Get a size that suits you: the Birth-Ease Birth Ball (from £18.99, comes in two sizes, with a pump to adjust the firmness.

Relax in water

‘Being in water is soothing,’ says Tracey. ‘Research shows the pleasure sensation it creates is stronger than the pain from the contractions.’ It’s important you don’t overheat your baby, so keep the water just warm. Relax in the bath, or consider a birthing pool, even if you simply use
it for early labour. Try the Birth Pool in a Box Eco Pool (£129.95,

Enjoy a massage

‘If you like massage, ask your birth partner to massage the lower base of your spine with the heel of their hand,’ says Tracey. ‘And have a tennis ball to hand – many mums who don’t want to be touched find they tolerate having this rolled around their lower back.’

Think positive

The simple act of keeping in mind your body is squeezing your baby from your womb into the big wide world can help knock any pain from the forefront of your brain. Each contraction is bringing you closer to meeting your baby.

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