What Do Contractions Feel Like? I Was Surprised…

Joanna Goddard belly shot

When I was pregnant for the first time, I was terrified of giving birth…

I’ve never been the toughest with pain (honestly, even jogging feels like a lot, haha), and not knowing what to expect made me even more nervous. I remember walking around Manhattan and looking at strangers who passed by. “You were born, and you were born,” I would tell myself. That ritual somehow calmed me. So many women had done this before, right?!

When I finally went into labor, the sensation was different from what I had expected. For me, here’s how it went down:

  • I had a few Braxton Hicks, or “false” contractions, in the couple weeks before Toby and Anton were born. These felt like my entire belly went hard as a rock for a few seconds. For me, it didn’t hurt at all, but I felt like I could knock on my stomach like a wooden door. Then it would just go back to normal.

  • When I actually went into labor, I didn’t realize it at first. I figured labor would feel like Braxton Hicks, but my belly never tightened up. Also, my water didn’t break early on, like it does for some women. Instead, I felt on-and-off cramps low down in my pelvis, like menstrual cramps or gas. During the ninth month of pregnancy, everything was pretty creaky (my back! my feet!), so vague discomfort seemed par for the course. But, after a couple hours, the cramps started getting stronger. We started timing them and excitedly headed into the hospital.

    Joanna Goddard belly shot

    Alex and I going to the hospital when Toby was born. We were both giddy, although I was more focused. :)

  • As my labor progressed, the cramps came every couple minutes, and would start off slowly, build to a peak, and then ease up again. The peak got higher and higher as time passed. Anton’s labor was faster and more intense than Toby’s. I remember sitting in the waiting room at the hospital, when my contractions went from zero to sixty. It felt like a washcloth was getting twisted and rung out in my pelvis. I was kneeling on the ground, rocking back and forth, moaning loudly, and rubbing my forehead on Alex’s knee. Even though many people near us were watching (what is more compelling to grandparents in the waiting room than a woman in labor?), I didn’t care AT ALL. I felt like an animal, as my body took over. The break of a minute or two between each contraction — with no pain — was a welcome relief. And I was so focused, the time was flying by.

  • With both boys, I chose to get an epidural once we were in the delivery room and I had labored for a while. With Toby, I had back labor, so I still felt lots of pressure. With Anton, the epidural completely took away the pain, even through the pushing stage. Alex and I chatted excitedly and brainstormed baby names, while watching my contractions spike on the computer monitor. I couldn’t believe the difference, it was surreal!

  • The biggest thing I remember about labor, though, was how EXHILARATING it was. Although the sensations were intense, you’re bringing a person into the world, and the experience of holding those sweet tiny boys for the first time still brings tears to my eyes, even as I type. xoxo

    If you’ve had a baby, what did your contractions feel like? Did you have an epidural? A C-section? Did you adopt or work with a surrogate? I’d love to hear about your experiences… Here’s Toby’s full birth story, if you’d like to see photos.

    P.S. More on pregnancy, and going from one to two kids.

    (Photo from when I was pregnant with Anton.)

    1. Tatiana says...

      Hi Joanna, i just found this post now, happy to read bits and pieces of Anton’s birth story.

      The labour of my daughter four years ago took 21 hours from the moment my water broke until the moment she was born. Sounds like a lot but only the last few hours hurt. I did not have an epidural but the idea that i could have it if i felt i could not cope anymore was calming. I was surprised that the pain from the contractions did not add up but each of those million contractions was a feeling of its own. Regardless of how much it hurt, once it was over, i did not feel any pain and started the next contraction with a clean slate. (If that makes sense). I spent most of the labour in a shower and was really bummed that the hospital did not have tubs. I am an Aquarius and i would have loved a water birth. I did not have any pitocin and i told my OB-GYN i preferred a natural tearing to an episiotomy. Fortunately, all went smoothly and i came out of the experience very empowered. Like after a hike that’s been really exhausting but then you get to enjoy the view from the top.

    2. Your contractions sound similar to mine with my boy, Braxton Hicks, then low and crampy and once my water broke very intense. I was induced though so already at the hospital. I could feel contractions even before the induction gel was administered so things went verrry quickly from there with no time for any drugs.
      Like you, I would look at kids in the streets and think how they had all been born to calm myself for what was ahead as the unknown scared me. But once contractions began in ernest it was only 1hr 38mins before he was out and I felt joy, relief – and excitement at what I’d just been through.
      I still feel incredibly lucky to have such a straightforward and positive birth experience as I know not everyone gets to have that. If there is a next time I worry it will be the opposite!

    3. katie says...

      Baby #1 was straight up back labor. I never felt a single contraction in the front. I had no pain meds. Labor was 3 hours start to finish and it hurt, but I really didn’t think it was that bad.

      Baby #2 (8 years later) dear Lord almighty. I felt everything in the front and it was TERRIBLE. I honestly feel like I have a little PTSD from the experience (8 months ago). I’d choose back labor over that shit any day. Again no pain meds, and labor was 49 minutes start to finish. It was the most insane 49 minutes of my entire life. A labor like that ever again seriously almost makes me question possibly wanting a 3rd some day..

      Precipitous labor runs in my family and while it sounds great, yikes.. there is no time to emotionally cope with how quickly things are going down.

      • Jo says...

        Your comment on PTSD made me laugh! My daughter was born after 80 chaotic minutes. I honestly felt like my mind couldn’t catch up to what my body was doing. It was the weirdest sense of disconnect I’ve ever felt. AND it was 37 years ago. PTSD indeed! ?

      • Ana D says...

        Birthing-related PTSD is blessedly treatable by therapy and sometimes medications. Unfortunately, PTSD doesn’t really go away on its own. It’s one of those things that is often tolerated for YEARS before people get treated. It makes me cry to think of all the people facing untreated PTSD symptoms while also transitioning into motherhood and taking care of a child. You deserve and need focused care too.