Burning Question: What Does a Contraction Feel Like?

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked-Up.[Every week, Shine finds an answer to one of life's little mysteries. If you've got a burning question you want answered, tweet it to @yahooshine #burningquestions or share it in the comments section.]

Movies have wheeled us into the delivery room to witness the sweating, screaming, grunting, groaning, and inevitable "you got me into this" jab at the panicked dad. Even the childless among us have an idea of what a contraction sounds like. But what does a contraction feel like?

"The quippy answer is 'you know it when you feel it,'" says Paula Spencer Scott, author of The Pregnancy Journal. That's a favorite description on pregnancy bulletin boards, in addition to mentions of the worst menstrual and digestive cramps of your life, multiplied by infinity. While it's different for each woman, of course, everyone seems to agree on one thing: they hurt like a mother.

"It's almost like being gripped by a python," describes Spencer Scott. "It's like you swallowed the python but he's still gripping you from the inside out."

Spencer Scott likens the experience to training for an athletic event, with contractions building in intensity and duration until the finish line. "They start small, a minor little 'whoa what was that?'" she says. As labor goes on, the duration of the contraction gets longer and more intense, and the time between them shorter as you build to the main event. "Suddenly, you're in the Olympics," she says. "But you get the gold medal at the end."

What's happening exactly? The uterine muscle is involuntarily tightening and relaxing, allowing the lower part of the uterus to relax and the cervix to open, clearing the path for baby to enter the brave new world. "Imagine the uterus as an inverted wine bottle," says Spencer Scott. "In order for that baby to come out of that wine bottle, the neck has to open and widen so that wine bottle becomes more like a pasta sauce jar."

To continue the athletic metaphor, think of contractions like interval training: you give everything you've got in a burst, followed by a recovery. Or think of ocean waves crashing on you as you try to swim out to a sandbar. "It's kind of like going through the breakers," describes Spencer Scott. "Boom," a pause, "and then boom." Anticipating the next contraction adds another level of pain. "You've just done this big interval, and toward the end of that interval you think, 'I cannot endure this a second longer.' And then it subsides." But then, of course, the next one comes."You have to go back up this big hill again." And back through those crashing waves.

Make the most of those recovery periods, she suggests. "Let people rub your back or your feet, chew your ice chips and pat yourself on the back: okay, I did that. Try to focus on the empowerment of it."

Of course, each woman will experience contractions and labor differently. But when she couldn't take another gripping python, crashing wave, or an everything-you've-got interval, Spencer Scott employed some mental tricks: "I kept imagining women in Jane Austen's day, or people who are giving birth in war zones. I thought, 'I'll just keep trying until I can't do it any longer.'" She's now mom to four. "People have been giving birth forever. Tell yourself, 'my body was made to do this.'"

This is one woman's description of her experience. What did your contractions feel like? Tell us in the comments.


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