How to Recognize Labor Contractions

As a mother of 6 children, all birthed naturally I understand fully that recognizing true labor is more than simply understanding how the pain feels. In many ways I know that you do not need to be told when you are in labor because you will know it, but even 4 children later you can be mistaken. A lot of the information I read on contractions seemed to make sense at the time, but I could not now tell you that this is how it actually felt. In fact, if you asked me to describe the pain, I am afraid I could only tell you that it hurt quite a lot more than I ever expected it to.

The simplest definitions of knowing how you are in labor and your baby will be born soon are simply ‘When you just want it to be over’. While this is very true, you can experience those feelings before you even go into labor as you go to sleep at night planning the difficult logistics of how you are going to get out of bed in the morning. However if you are feeling pain, you may believe that baby will be close. Braxton Hicks, or ‘false labor’ is not just there to mess with your head. It is doing something. Sure it is not ending the pregnancy that started off as a beautiful journey and turned into a nine month nightmare, but it is paving the way for the end to come. This is the first stage of labor! Don’t get too excited. Pre-labor can and has lasted up to 3 weeks for some women! During this time you may lose your mucous plug – known as a bloody show. Do not be surprised if you do not see it though as it may not happen until transition. There is effacement (thinning of the cervix) happening during this time and small amounts of dilation, so please don’t think all this pain is for nothing.

I could now go into details of how to tell that you are experiencing only pre-labor, however you are better capable of identifying this by being able to identify that you are not in Active labor – the second stage. Active labor is defined by your cervix having reached 4cms dilation. This is when the pain gets serious. Does it hurt that much that you have changed your mind, you can wait to have this baby? Chance are you have made it there. Many will describe labor contractions as “really bad menstrual cramping”. This is how I describe pre-labor as the pains of actual contractions are something else entirely. If you are not impossibly doubled over, gripping the nearest ledge for support and praying for it to stop – you are not yet in active labor.

Differences between Pre-labor and Active labor:

Timing – Active labor pains happen at regularly spaced intervals. They also last longer. If they do not have a discernible pattern, they are only pre-labor.
Pain level – If you are still gritting your teeth and bearing it, it is probably not active labor. Pre-labor contractions come and fade away. Active labor contractions peak with an intense pain.
Mindset – If you are sitting there thinking “I can do this”, that is probably not active labor. However if you are thinking “I don’t want to do this”, then you can get yourself to a hospital.
Walking – They do advise that walking through a contraction helps with dilation. While it is great advice, the pain, especially at the peak of a contraction, is so intense you will probably not manage more than a shuffle. If you can walk through it unassisted, you still have a while to go.

Learning to tell when you are in active labor is without doubt very valuable and saves you time and money as well as saves face when you once again walk away from the hospital after a false alarm. However do not think that you need to wait until then. Midwives have seen it all and understand, especially first time mums, that we are not always going to be able to tell the difference. Also, if something doesn’t feel right then go straight in. It might be nothing, but they will have no problem helping to put your fears to bed if it is.

Let your body guide you. It knows what it is doing and by virtue of this, you instinctively do too.