Medically reviewed by Dr Kristy June Dinampo.
When you ask women what their greatest fears are about childbirth, the pain of labor is at the top of the list.
The catch is that contractions are a necessary part of labor, the discomfort unavoidable.
Unless you are having a scheduled cesarean birth before labor begins on its own, your uterus needs to contract for your baby to be born.
With each tightening, the muscular uterus pulls up on its opening, the cervix. This causes the cervix to thin and open.
Once open, the strong uterine contractions push the baby down into the birth canal and out into the world.
It takes time and progressively stronger contractions for all of this to happen. And it does cause sensations most women describe as painful.
The problem with hearing other women’s descriptions of birth is that pain is subjective – every woman feels it differently based on her own history. How contractions feel to you is a purely personal thing.
It will depend on what pain you have felt before in your life, and whether you have a low or high threshold to painful bodily changes.
So what you might find merely uncomfortable might cause another woman to writhe in agony.
Labor pain isn’t like other kinds of pain.
It’s not chronic like arthritis and it’s not acute like a broken bone. It’s not a signal that something’s wrong, but a sign that things are going right with your body.
Contractions build slowly – allowing your body to acclimatize to changes.
Contractions come and go.
It’s not an entire eight hours of being in pain. Contractions have resting periods in between.
And there is a definite endpoint to contractions with the birth of the baby and placenta.
Because we associate “contraction” with pain, midwife and birth guru Ina May Gaskin refers to them instead as “rushes.” In Hypnotbirthing (a non-pharmacological method of pain relief in labor), they use the word “surges.”
The language we use to describe birth can make a huge difference in how we perceive the sensations.
If we go into birth anxious and dreading pain, we’re likely to feel more discomfort.
If we welcome the sensations as a guide to find a comfortable position or movement, we may be less fearful and describe labor as less painful than expected.
What Do Contractions Feel Like?
Some women describe the contraction as waves – you can feel the wave building and building, lifting you higher until the wave breaks and runs up the beach, then is pulled slowly back out to sea.
Maybe you’re riding the wave; maybe it’s crashing over you.
Or contractions may feel like standing beside railroad tracks – you can feel the train coming toward you in the distance, vibrations moving from the ground up through your body, then the air rushes pushing against you as the train passes you, until finally the train passes away and into the distance leaving you exhilarated.
Maybe those descriptions are too poetic.
Many women simply describe contractions like intense menstrual cramps or gas pains.
Some women go further saying they feel like being stabbed or like someone is trying to pull their internal organs out.
Maybe the poetic images will help you think more positively about contractions (and thus stay calmer) instead of fearing them as images of being stabbed and gutted would.
A fight or flight response to labor pain can slow labor down, make it last longer, and ultimately cause more pain so it makes sense to avoid this.
Where is Labor Pain Felt in the body?
The bodily location of the pain may change as labor progresses. During the first stage, women typically feel labor pain in their lower backs, and if often radiates to the abdomen.
Some women feel pain in the upper thighs, hips and buttocks.
For others they only feel the pain in their back or stomach throughout the entire process.
When the baby’s head begins its movement down from the top of the vagina it can feel like a big, heavy cannon ball.
During the second stage (pushing), the pain is centered lower – in the pelvis, vagina, rectum and perineum.
With each contraction, you will be bearing down.
This is hard, tiring work – which is why they call it labor.
When the baby’s head is ready to be born, the quality of the pain may change to a burning sensation briefly as the vaginal outlet is stretched.
This is sometimes called the “ring of fire”.
Pushing through this to deliver your baby can be challenging – we instinctively want to pull away from such pain, but you need to run through it for your baby to arrive.
Finally, contractions associated with the third stage of labor (delivery of the placenta) can vary in painfulness from mild to very painful as your uterus begins to contract back to its original size.
Some women also feel ‘after pains’ when they breastfeed in the early days because the hormones that deliver milk to the baby also continue contracting the uterus and stomach muscles.
Tension in your body will increase the intensity of pain sensations – if you’re fighting against them, the contractions will hurt more.
The more relaxed you are, the more manageable the pain may be.
It’s entirely possible to use drug-free comfort measures to get through labor.
Relaxation techniques, breathing changes, aromatherapy, movement and touch call interrupt or change the pain signals.
If you change the quality of the stimulus, you can change your physical reaction to it.
Is there such a thing as painless labor?
Pain medications – analgesics and anesthesia – are often used to relieve the pain of labor.
You need to get to a certain point in labor, however, before getting them.
You might think that a cesarean will save you from labor pain – but keep in mind it’s major abdominal surgery.
The recovery will most certainly be uncomfortable at best.
Rather than searching for a pain-free option, focus instead on ways to manage your discomfort – take into account your own personal reactions to pain and plan accordingly.
Women’s wisdom about birth is powerful.
Talking to other mothers – learning how they managed contractions, what helped, what didn’t – can help to alleviate the stress of the unknown.