Why the term “contraction” is a bit of a misnomer and how you can use both side of the contraction to have a better unmedicated birth experience. Plus hear real moms describe how contractions felt to them.
Episode 13 Benefits of Unmedicated Birth
So last week I asked you guys on Instagram, I put a little question box up and I said, “tell me what contractions feel like.” And I feel like this is a common Google search, especially for the first time mom and this is today’s episode topic, contractions. The two sides of contractions and the untold story of the labor contraction.
Before we jump in, I want to differentiate between some of the different kinds of contractions, because maybe you’re coming to this episode and you’re wondering what you’re feeling. So real quick I want to talk about some of the different unofficial types of contractions.
We have what’s called Braxton Hicks, which I actually don’t even like the term Braxton Hicks, but I use it because everyone knows what I’m talking about when I say Braxton Hicks, and the reason I don’t like it is because Braxton Hicks is actually the name of the man who, “discovered” Braxton Hicks or practice contractions is what I prefer to call them. And I just don’t like it because some man was like, “Oh, I discovered this.” And no, I am pretty sure the hundreds and hundreds of years prior to Mr. Braxton Hicks being born, that the women that experienced them discovered them, but sure, go ahead, take it over and slap your name on it. Anyways, obviously I don’t like it, but I still usually call them Braxton Hicks, because everyone knows what I’m talking about. So those practice contractions can start as early as 12 – 16 weeks, on the earlier side with subsequent pregnancies. And when you’re feeling them in the early weeks, it’s super subtle, because your uterus is really small. It may feel really firm at first during a practice contraction. When I first felt a Braxton Hicks super early with my second pregnancy, I was like, “Oh, I think the baby’s like pushing up.” Your uterus is so small, it’s hard to identify but you can feel your uterus or even visually see your uterus firm up. That’s a Braxton Hick contraction. It’s just a practice contraction. It is your uterus muscles tightening up and then releasing. They don’t happen constantly but you’ll feel them here and there before you actually go into labor. Some women never feel them before they go into labor. Some women feel them super early. Like I said for me personally, I felt them more with my second and third pregnancy and I really can’t remember if I felt them with my first.
And then we also have prodromal labor. This is a good thing to know. Prodromal labor contractions are kind of like a cross between Braxton Hicks and true labor contractions kind of like right in the middle. So prodromal labor, you’ll experience contractions and you may even think, this it. This is birth, I’m going into labor. And then it kind of dies off, so prodromal labor contractions, and I forgot to say this about Braxton Hicks contractions… Braxton Hicks contractions do not dilate your cervix, but prodromal labor contractions can dilate your cervix. So prodromal labor contractions are doing a little more work than the Braxton Hicks contractions but it’s not true labor contractions where the contractions continue and they get stronger and they get longer and they get closer together. And true labor contractions don’t really stop until your baby is born. So that would be true labor contractions and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
When I’m reading these descriptions to you, and we’re kind of talking through how they feel, we are more so talking about the contractions that you have when you are finally in labor, and not really the contractions that you get as Braxton Hicks or in prodromal labor prodromal labor. Although prodromal labor really does feel like labor it just it kind of fizzles off and it is definitely more mild. You can think you’re in labor, even for like a whole four hours, you think okay, these are kind of picking up and they’re kind of staying kind of consistent and then it just kind of stops. Okay, so let’s jump in to true labor contractions.
Well, hold on, let’s rewind. What is a contraction in terms of what we’re feeling in labor, I just said it’s not a good name, but we call it that anyway. So it’s the tightening and the release of the uterine muscles. And it helps to open our cervix, this is what makes us dilate, and then it also these contractions that moves your baby through the birth canal.
Hold up your hand and make a fist. Now tighten it really tight, tight, tight, tight, tight into a ball and keep holding it tight. And now let go allowing the muscles of your hand to completely relax, completely relaxed and it’s not tight anymore. Now do it again. That’s what’s happening when you’re having a contraction in labor. So this is why it’s a misnomer because the contraction is only half the story. If a muscle is contracting, that’s the part where you’re making your hand so tense. So tight, tight, tight. But it’s not the part where you release and you let go. So contraction is almost not the best name because it’s just forcing us to focus on the uncomfortable part and there’s two sides to the contraction. There’s the tightness and there is the release.
And in a way, the easier part of that is the actual contracting part, that tightness part because your body does that on its own and it’s actually the relaxation part, that release part that is more challenging in labor for most of us, because it’s really hard to release and surrender to that second half of the contraction. And then that’s when that’s when we have a harder time in labor because we are only focused on the tense, tense, tense and then on the release, we’re still so tense, and then it ramps up to more intense more tenseness, and it becomes difficult to manage if you can’t tap into that release portion of the contraction.
When we are in pain our instinct is to tighten up and to squeeze and to be tight and even hold our breath and scrunch our face and clench our jaw. But in labor, it’s so important to actually do the opposite and it’s not intuitive. So you really have to practice breathing deeply, relaxing your face, relaxing your jaw, bringing relaxation and releasing tension from your whole body. Using like rhythm and routine to relax through pain is not instinctual. And so it’s really important to practice, practice not just your breathing techniques, but practice actually releasing tension and relaxation techniques. So some ideas for you.
So for example, you could do a wall squat, where you’re holding a wall squat like beyond the point to where it’s comfortable, like I don’t want you to hold the wall squat and then as soon as it gets uncomfortable to get up. Because you can’t do that in a contraction. You have no control over the contraction part. So I want you to get in a wall squat to the point where it feels uncomfortable, but then focus on your breathing and focus on holding that for just one minute. And we actually do this in a prenatal bar program that I love. I did it with my third pregnancy. I actually attribute my super fast labor in part to, doing this prenatal bar program because there was so much birth prep in the program, including the breathing, pelvic floor exercises, strengthening, flexibility and range of motion. I will link to this program in the show notes for you if you want to take a look.
Another idea would be while you’re walking, like let’s say you’re on a brisk walk and while you’re walking quickly and maybe starting to get a little worn out right? You’re like getting a little fatigued, and your breathing might change as you’re walking, you’re maybe panting so that’s a good time to be really mindful of taking in deep belly breaths and making space in your belly and doing that longer inhale and that longer exhale and controlling that while also practicing releasing tension in your face in your hands. All while you’re still walking, so you see how I’m coupling it with something that’s maybe a little uncomfortable to force you to be really mindful of your breathing and your relaxation.
And then the third idea for you is to hold an ice cube. So get an ice cube out, put it in your fist in your hand and just tighten around that ice cube for a minute while you’re practicing your breathing techniques. And it sounds a lot easier than it is. I’ve only done this a couple times. But every time I’m always really surprised at how uncomfortable it is and how I want to let go. But then, once you get through it, you’re like oh, okay, I can do that. And then take the ice cube out of your hand. Practice the release part too. So it’s, that’s the part we need to practice is releasing that tension. So get rid of the ice cube and set it aside and completely relax your body and then try it again.
Okay, so three ideas for you to practice breathing during something that’s kind of intense and uncomfortable is doing a wall squat. While you’re walking briskly, like doing some you know, quick walking, or holding an ice cube and just remember to practice the release side of it too and really work on your mindset while you’re doing these practices.
And while we’re on the topic of birth prep, I want to take a second to remind you of my free Birth Prep Class and Bundle. The biggest mistake that I see moms making in preparing for birth is doing too little too late. And this class is really all of the things that you should start now to prepare for birth and specifically an unmedicated birth, the more that we can prepare and be ready, physically, mentally ready with our education in our support for unmedicated birth, the more likely we will be successful in reaching our goal of having an unmedicated low to no intervention, birth. So go check out the class now and download your resource bundle at fiercelizzie.com/birthprepclass.
So instead of just focusing on the tense side, the intense side of contractions, we can rename them to better suit that true feeling of how a contraction comes on, how it kind of suddenly comes on and it peaks and then it tapers off to a period of relaxation. Some popular names to replace the term contraction are waves, surges, and rushes. And they really more accurately describe that tense and that release side of labor.
And you know, I always try to be super real with how birth is, and postpartum and breastfeeding all of it right, but I try to be super real with like the intensity of contractions, because changing the name is not going to take that intensity away. So while a wave or a surge or a rush sounds more pleasant. I don’t want you to be completely blindsided by the intensity that is a contraction. I do think it can be helpful to reframe your mindset by using these other terms. And one swap of terms that I also like to make as I talk about labor and birth and that sort of thing is using the word intense rather than painful because I feel like it’s still a really accurate description, but it’s not as negative and it’s not as scary sounding as painful. And then using the terms like rush or wave can really help with your mindset and reminding you about not just the tense part but also the release part of the contraction to help you to, one, get through it knowing that there is a period of rest and, two, to help you remember to release on that resting part so you can get a true rest.
And one thing that I really disliked looking back on that birth, there’s a lot I didn’t like that was my least favorite birth. But one of the things is I remember knowing I needed some rest and laying down and then with each contraction getting so tense, and then never releasing. And no one ever said “Lizzie breathe. Let’s release the tension in your hands.” No one said anything. So really, this is why I am just always hitting it home that you have to bring your own labor support. Whether that’s bring your own doula, bring your own education, train your partner on what to do because those very experienced nurses in the hospital weren’t telling me anything to cope with labor other than wanting to give me medications. Now of course, every provider in every hospital is different but that was my experience with my second and I just don’t want any mom to ever go into that situation being that unprepared.
Okay, so another thing I want to share with you to really illustrate the wave side of a contraction is an illustration by Bellies to Babes Doula on Instagram, which I obviously can’t show you- we’re on a podcast, but I’m going to link to it in the show notes. And it’s the journey of a contraction and I just think it really helps with the visual side of it. So I mean you can visualize a wave coming on, growing larger and then crashing. But then also seeing this image which I encourage you to go click through to the show notes and look at it. It shows you what it actually looks like in the uterus. And it really it does a great job of illustrating that intensity and that ramp up that is a contraction.
And for the sake of being real, like I said, I always want to be real with you. I’m going to share with you some of the responses that I got on Instagram when I put that question box up I had several moms describe how contractions felt to them and I think that’s really valid because they feel different, even with my three labors they felt different every time and so I think that’s just a great way to prepare and kind of know what to expect, is to hear from other moms, how it felt for them. So I’m going to read a few of them.
“Tightening, charley horse in the uterus like in the sense that it is in voluntary” I love that one. I had charley horses a lot with my third and I think partially because it was summertime and I was maybe always a little dehydrated. But it’s exactly like that. It’s just so accurate. And it’s so funny because charley horses are like, Ah, they’re so bad. And I’ve had the conversation with moms a few times. Like, I actually think charley horses are worse than contraction. So if you’ve had a charley horse while you’re pregnant, that should make you feel better. Knowing that some moms think that Charley horses are worse than contractions.
Another mom said, “like your your pelvic bones are about to break” so lots of stretching involved and that’s definitely true for me. It definitely felt more like a expansion rather than the opposite, which would be like a vice feeling which we have a few descriptions like that.
The next one says “an intense tingling pressure deep in the low belly and back.” Notice this mom doesn’t use any negative words and I personally know this mom and she had a really fast second labor and so when it’s really fast like that it’s is even more intense when you have super fast labors but I also want to share that some women do have pain free births. It’s very rare. It’s like less than 1% of women have pain free birth, and then like 1 to 3% just describe it as intense, but not painful. And then up from there, it becomes like, painful but manageable is what the bulk of moms say. Then a smaller percentage of moms say that it’s completely unbearable. They absolutely need pain management and that they can’t do it.
This next description, “a giant squeezing you to death.” And so, you know, I hate to say that it feels like you’re dying. But it is that intense. Especially if you don’t have the practice in the release and the relaxation. Like I didn’t in my second and I was just tense the whole time. It’s really intense and it’s the most uncomfortable thing that I’ve ever experienced in my life. But then there’s also those benefits right? So unmedicated birth has those benefits and as soon as that baby is out, the pain goes away. Which is why we kind of like tend to say that, Oh no, the charley horse is worse because the labor pain does go away immediately. I’m sure there’s other moms I’ve been knock on wood lucky to not have any like big injuries in my life to like compare to, sometimes I say a UTI is worse than labor because that like doesn’t go away and you don’t know when it’s going to go away. But in labor, you know, it’s going go away as soon as that baby comes out.
Okay, the next description, “the strongest period cramps you’ll ever feel in your life.” This is very consistent. A lot of moms say contractions feel like period cramps. And I agree and disagree. So it really depends and we’re gonna get to that in a second.
The next one says, “back labor with an OP baby. (OP is a sunny side up occiput posterior) contractions felt like someone stabbing me in the back.” Sunnyside up babies typically you have the back labor, which most moms say is worse than than the period cramps. So when you have an OP baby or when you have back labor is usually due to the positioning of the baby. A lot of moms say that it is more intense then like an occiput anterior baby, which is the way we want the optimal position baby, which is why I talk a lot about optimal positioning to prep for labor. So go check out my birth prep class. Because we talked about that in the class.
Next description, “for me exactly like bad diarrhea cramps.” So second most popular to the period cramps is poop cramps, which makes sense when you have your period your uterus is contracting to shed your uterine lining it’s literally the same thing. But your your uterus has to work a lot harder for contractions to expel your baby versus your uterine lining.
Next description, “a wave each one has a buildup a peak and then a crash.” So remember we talked about naming them waves and this really is a great description of the both sides of the contraction.
“Your torso and hips getting squeezed by a vice and then it slowly releases, but then it starts all over again.” I really liked that description too. Like I said for me personally it felt more like a spreading and if we want to be real here more like a ripping apart of my hips versus feeling super squished but a lot of moms describe it as feeling like the second description that says being squished.
Next description, “my tummy tightens from the top to the bottom then intensifies until I feel a release.” This is really accurate too and this is exactly what that journey of a contraction illustration that I want you to click through and go look at visually shows because it does it starts as a tightening it kind of creeps on. And once the whole tummy is tight, that’s when it kind of intensifies and then undoes all that intensity.
And then the last two I had to share someone said on my Instagram.. “Why is no one bringing up back labor where it feels like acid is burning your entire lower back?” I think this is the most accurate to my back labors, is it just felt like burning. It just burned even my labor where I didn’t have back labor. And it was all in the front like my period cramps. It felt like burning it felt like fire, it didn’t really feel how my period cramps feel. I also don’t really have bad period cramps so I can’t really compare. And then another comment on back labor, “I had back labor so it didn’t feel like cramps to me, more like a horrible back ache, tightness and stinging in my back.” So again, that burning stinging kind of feeling and more more in the back.
So that’s some descriptions of how labor feels and I think I really got a good wide variety of descriptions and I think they are all accurate. I mean, of course they’re all accurate. It’s your experience of what you are feeling. So I hope that is somewhat helpful.
And let’s real quick the last thing I want to talk about is relating this to the unmedicated birth, and I want you to know why it’s important to feel your labor. Of course there are some benefits to unmedicated birth, you can go check out that episode. I don’t know what episode number it is. I’ll link to it in the show notes. But it’s on the benefits of unmedicated birth. There’s obviously benefits in terms of lower risks and faster recovery and being in control and that sort of thing. But being able to hear those messages from your body relates back to that reason moms choose unmedicated in the first place to have more control. There’s so much power in being able to feel your labor and listen to your body and listen to what’s happening and follow your intuition. When we go ahead and agree to the epidural, whether it was pushed on us, whether we are like at our wits end and we have no more support tools left in our toolbox and we really, we need that last resort support tool. Once we have that epidural we have blocked those messages. Our intuition is fuzzy, we can’t tap into our intuition. We’ve lost some of that control in terms of movement and doing what feels good.
And it’s fine, well, of course there’s negative side effects to the epidural, but you just lose some of that power. Which if you really think about, why do providers sometimes push the epidural when I’m telling them I don’t want it?? And it really has a lot to do with like taking control over the situation and that’s how the provider knows how to take control is to just get you in the bed and take your pain away. So I just wanted to end on that note that there really is a lot of power in feeling those contractions and listening to those messages from your body, but also that the epidural really is just a support tool. And maybe if you’re on your 52nd hour of labor and you can no longer relax that it might be a good option for you to pull that support tool out of your toolbox.