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"
What do contractions feel like?
Mums usually say contractions feel like period pain, trapped wind or the uncomfortable contractions that accompany diarrhoea. Early contractions can be mild for some, feeling like a dull discomfort, aching or heaviness in the stomach, while some experience pain as soon as the cervix begins to dilate.
You may feel these sensations more in your back, sides or all the way around, and the pain tends to get more intense as labour progresses, and the contractions come quicker and last longer. However, the adrenaline and endorphins released during labour often help reduce the pain.
‘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 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 around.
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.
Our #mumtribe mamas tell us what contractions felt like for them:
"Each contraction starts as a faint period type pain gradually gets more intense until it reaches a peak, then settles back down again, lasting around 1 minute total. The peak is an extreme cramping feeling. Towards the latter stages of labour that very intense peak kicks your body into pushing with each one." Lauren Hughes.
"My first ones felt like the sort of cramp you get when you have an upset stomach. Then progressed into a kind of wave of a tightening that built to a peak and the receded." Tara George.
"Someone squeezing your insides very very tightly with a clamp, giving you a small breather and then doing it over and over again!" Sam Townsend.
"Period pains!" Sarah Henshaw.
"At the start was like strong period pain but once in the hospital, I felt pain in my bottom/back like I'd never felt before in my life." Lara O'Hara.
"Each one is like a build up to the worst period pain and then eases off. I spent a long time getting through mine counting down breathes from 14, and when I got to 9, I knew I was on the other side." Louise Cooke.
"Period type cramping that basically worsens with each contraction. These pains can be in your lower back not just necessarily in your side. You will also have diarrhoea type pains alongside these." Joanne Jordan
"That cramp pain when you're about to have diarrhoea combined with period pain. You can feel your tummy tightening too. They don't last long to begin with and increase with both length they last and intensity. However, mine never got closer than 6 mins apart, even though baby was moving down totally normally." Katie Gleeson.
"Like a very intense period pains! Mine never moved to my tummy either so I didn’t know I was in proper labour until I was 9cm dilated" Mummy Lowe.
How to cope with contractions:
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.
1) Walk around
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.
2) Apply a compress
This sends electrical pulses around your lower back, which help to interrupt the pain messages.
3) Use a TENS machine
'This teaches you how to relax,’ says Tracey. The easiest way to learn the technique is to listen to a hypnobirthing MP3 every night. When you listen to it during labour, your body will automatically relax.
4) Try hypnobirthing
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. Make sure to get a size that suits you.
5) Sit on a birth ball
Being in water is soothing,’ says Tracey. ‘Research shows the pleasure sensation it creates is stronger than the pain from the contractions.’ It is important you don’t overheat your baby so keep the water warm but not hot. Relax in the bath, or consider a birthing pool, even if you simply use it for early labour.
6) Relax in water
‘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.’
7) Enjoy a massage
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