We focus a lot of the physiology of birth, the choices and the options, even the emotions. But what about the sensations? What can you expect to actually FEEL when you’re in labour?
The tricky fact of it is, actually labour feels completely different for everyone. An induced labour feels different from a spontaneous one, different positions will change the sensations again, as will different environments, comfort measures and emotions like fear.
Something that we often don’t realise when we are preparing for birth and hearing stories of someone being in labour for x number of hours is that the sensations of labour are actually only there DURING the contractions. At the peak of labour these will last for around a minute and they’ll be followed by a 2-ish minute long break. In the breaks you feel rested, comfortable, actually pretty normal! In the early stages of labour they’ll be shorter and further apart! Take them one at a time shifting your attention to the points of comfort in your body (your arms, your legs, your face), and focus on the breaks!
Whilst it’s impossible to know what labour will feel like for any one person, the best description we get from most women who’ve been through it is ‘it hurts’. But it’s not quite as simple as that- you stub your toe and ‘it hurts’ but it’s actually a strong throbbing sensation, you get a stitch and ‘it hurts’ but actually it feels sharp and constant, you have tonsillitis and ‘it hurts’ but specifically its a raspy ache.. so what does labour actually FEEL like?
I’ve put together the words of REAL women who have been in labour, about what each stage actually FEELS like..
Early Labour feels like…
‘Period pains that come and go’
‘A pinching feeling in my lower tummy, kind of like pins and needles’
‘A constant ache right inside my vagina, and a heavy feeling in there’
‘That ache you get if you’ve got diarrhoea’
‘Cramping inside my pelvis, that’s it’
‘Dull lower back ache, not painful’
‘Sickness, waves that came and went before any cramping’
‘Felt like the baby was stretching inside me’
‘A stitch like I had suddenly run 50m sprint without warming up first’
‘like there was a bowling ball weighing down my cervix and pulling downwards’
‘It radiated from the bottom upwards’
‘like I had eaten bad food and didn’t want to be too far from the loo!’
‘down there felt swollen and achey’
‘exaggerated braxton hicks, that tight tight feeling that twinged with something sharp’
‘a constant dull ache in my lower abdomen that never left and cramps in my back’
‘tightening, tingling, slight period cramps. Exciting not uncomfortable.’
‘growing pains in my legs’
‘it almost rolled from the back of my bum to the front of my cervix, peaking at the end.’
‘back ache radiating around to my lower tummy’
‘waves of intense burning’
‘Exactly like the cramps I get when my period is coming’
Now you can see that it REALLY does feel different for everyone! The general message here though was that this part is completely manageable!
What does ‘established’ labour feel like?
‘Like when you have a REALLY big spot on your face that’s about to burst (like one of the deep under the skin ones) but having that radiating pressure all through your bump and aching right up inside your vagina. It comes and goes with each surge, in between I felt totally normal’
‘Serious pins and needles and tightness’
‘intense cramping in the front of the lower pelvis’
‘like a very intense period pain that spread right across the bump, pelvis and lower back.’
‘A heavy period feeling that would build up to a peak and the cool back down, like a wave’
‘a really powerful rolling sensation, like period cramps with a volume button that goes up and then back down’
‘the most severe kind of period cramps, like I couldnt sit or lie down, it radiated around my tummy from the back’
‘a short intense pressure, very powerful’
‘a weight moving down, pushing on my cervix' deep inside’
‘a new version of me took over, it was SO powerful, but so was I’
‘a dull ache that grew into a very strong cramp, you get to know the rhythm of it and how to ride it’
‘waves of pressure through my lower abdomen and desperate need to squat during each contraction’
‘there was no painful sensation for me, just intensity, other worldly, I felt high’
‘The sensation crept around to the front and felt like a ‘belt’ of the feeling you have when you have a stitch from running’
‘cramps that felt sharp at the peak’
‘like a belt being tightened and released on the inside’
Again, as you can see, VERY different for everyone. Sometimes this might be the point where you choose to reach for pain relief, other times you may find breathing and finding comfortable position enough. Labour is incredibly powerful, but dont forget SO ARE YOU!
And what about the pushing phase?
‘Exciting! I knew we were nearly there. My body just took enough and knew what to do’
‘Like I REALLY needed a poo!’
‘Much more purposeful, I got totally in the zone, it progressed naturally’
‘an uncontrollable urge, body just TOOK OVER’
‘Like I needed a huge, massive poop!’
‘A huge pressure in my vagina, you feel like you want to push something you can’t control’
‘Its just like when you have food poisoning and need to be sick, except out of your vagina!’'
‘This was the best part, you can suddenly DO something with the sensations’
‘Helping my body push was a huge relief’
‘The sensations totally chnages, it was just an overwhelming urge to push' down’
‘MUCH better than before, you have something to do with the sensations’
‘completely involuntary and unexpected, baby is moving down and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, amazing!’
‘Something I couldnt stop, my body just automatically did it, so weird!’
‘It felt like a chinese burn’
‘It was a relief’
‘Focusing on pushing felt like it stopped the pain of the contraction itself’
‘Constant pressure in my vagina, I could feel him coming down and slipping back up on repeat’
‘it felt like vomiting downwards’
‘Intense, I could feel her legs kicking lower and lower, I pushed with it because it felt like I should’
‘Less painful! Contractions seemed to sweep DOWN my stomach’
‘It felt like my body took over and pushed’
‘like when you’re going to throw up, you can’t control it’
‘The stinging bit only lasted for a matter of seconds! And by that point baby was about to be born!’
‘My body automatically pushed, I had to go with it, if I tried to resist it was unbarable’
‘surreal, like sneezing but way more intense and out of your vagina! Hard work, exhausting’
‘Something I couldnt control taking over, it made me growl!’
‘It felt good to push!’
As the part of labour most women are most scared of, the resounding thing I always here is that this part is the ‘BEST’ bit of labour. No more ‘riding the waves’, you can actually do something (or your body can at least!)