An Expectant Mom’s Guide to Contractions

Many first-time expectant moms are understandably nervous about the labor and delivery process. A smart way to alleviate any anxiety associated with the birth of your new baby is to learn as much as possible about what to expect, including the difference between true labor signs and false alarms. Pocket this advice and you’ll be ready to take on your labor with confidence.

Beware of false alarms. Many soon-to-be new moms experience false labor pains known as Braxton Hicks contractions.  If you're not sure whether these might be real labor pains, remember that false contractions are irregular in their timing. And if changing your activity or position makes the pain go away, it's probably false labor. On the other hand, true labor contractions take place at regular intervals and occur more frequently as time goes on. They’ll last anywhere from 30 seconds in the beginning to 90 seconds as labor progresses, and walking or any increased activity may cause the contractions to intensify.

Look for other signs. While labor pains are usually a sign that you’re nearing your delivery time, there are other indications that labor is not far away. For starters, the new baby may have dropped, also known as lightening. This simply means your little one has settled into your pelvis. In some instances, a woman's water may break before labor begins, which occurs either as a sudden gush of fluid or a steady trickle. This is the amniotic sac, which is a fluid-filled membrane that protects the baby in the uterus. Once this occurs, there is an increased risk for infection, so if labor has not already started, you may need to be induced.   

Call the doctor You'll want to call your health care provider (and prepare to head to the hospital) if your contractions are growing stronger and occurring at shorter intervals. The same is true if your water has broken. Likewise, severe vaginal bleeding or cramping, as well as pain in your belly, back, or pelvis, are reasons for an expectant mom to call for emergency assistance.

When it comes to childbirth, the more prepared you are, the better, so memorize the signs of labor -- especially if this is your first delivery. Simply understanding the changes that take place in your body when the time finally arrives helps to put you at ease and prepare you for the birth of your new baby.

Countdown to Your New Baby

The outlets have been covered, baby clothes bought, car seat installed -- what’s left to do? In the final weeks before delivery, you may find yourself becoming restless. Instead of counting down the minutes, why not make the most of your time with these suggestions.

Rest up. Ask some new moms what they wish they had done more of before their baby arrived, and without a doubt, sleeping would be at the top of their list. Though ultimately rewarding, labor and delivery are exhausting, and you’ll need energy ad stamina to get through the process. Sneak in as many naps and morning sleep-ins as you can during the last few weeks of your pregnancy, or make an effort to head to bed at an earlier time.

Bond with your partner. Before your new baby makes his debut, and your time is consumed by feedings, naps, and diaper changes, take time to relish your last few weeks alone with your partner. Try taking a long weekend away together or find a nearby bed and breakfast or local hotel so you can play tourist in your own hometown. Make sure to check with your doctor before making any late pregnancy travel arrangements, in case your practitioner isn’t comfortable with you being far from home.

Finish baby prep. You might think you only have a few things left to finish up before your little one arrives, but now is the time to do it. While a new baby really doesn’t need much in her first few weeks, check to make sure everything is set up and ready to go. Don’t forget to sterilize bottles, put sheets on the crib, assemble the stroller, wash the baby clothes, and complete other tasks that you won’t want to deal with while juggling a brand-new baby. Once she arrives you’ll want to give her as much undivided attention as you can!

There’s a lot to do before your new baby arrives, but there’s no need to worry if you don't get to it all. The most important task in your last few weeks is take care of yourself so you can be a healthy new mom when your little one does arrive.

My Easy Delivery

At 38 ½ weeks pregnant, I thought I was as emotionally ready as I would be at 40 weeks. I woke up at 12:30 a.m. feeling … wet. After going to the bathroom, I couldn’t tell if my water broke or not, or if my squished bladder was merely not cooperating again. My husband and I spent 20 minutes rereading our books and searching online “how to tell if your water broke.” The most telling advice I discovered from last-minute online searching: Lay down for 15 to 20 minutes, and if you get up and are leaking a lot (more than a trickle), it’s probably time.

It was good advice, as it turned out my water had broke, which means an immediate visit to labor and delivery to prevent infection to the baby. After a 20-second, in-shock-that-this-was-it panic attack, I ate a bagel, and off we went to the hospital. New mom tip: If possible, eat something before going to the hospital, since once you’re there, the rule is no food allowed.

On the way to the hospital, my contractions started, and over the course of the 17 minute drive, they increased in pain while decreasing in intervals. Once we reached labor and delivery, my contractions had greatly intensified, and no amount of breathing techniques seemed to ease my pain and discomfort. What kept me going was knowing our bundle of joy would enter our world very soon.

I was 2 cm dilated when we first got to the hospital, so I decided to get an epidural to help me through the physical pains of labor. It helped tremendously. I was able to rest and relax, since I knew the next 18 years would be far from restful.

After being examined at 8:30 a.m., my doctor said I would still be a while. But less than an hour later, I was feeling more intense pain and pressure. After receiving additional pain meds, the pressure just intensified. We informed a doctor who examined me again, and couldn’t believe I was 10 cm dilated. I knew to trust my instincts and was right.

At 10:05 a.m., I started to push. It turned into an out-of-body experience. Every possible ounce of energy that my body had stored was used to push, and just when I couldn’t push anymore, my doctor said to push harder. I was told to take a deep breath, and push for 10 seconds at a time. After pushing for what seemed like an eternity, my doctor announced that “this next part is called the ‘ring of fire.’” Note to doctor: Don’t tell a woman in labor she should anticipate feeling a ring of fire. The most surreal part of the experience was the doctor telling me to reach down and touch the top of my baby’s head, which was part extremely bizarre, part extremely fascinating.

Once the head made it through, my baby seemed to swim right out into the world. In total, I pushed for 27 minutes -- a relatively easy delivery -- and the most amazing love of my life was born. She was 6 pounds 9 ounces of perfection. As I held my new child in my arms skin to skin, I could not have ever dreamed up a better feeling.

The Expectations and Reality of Labor

My son’s birth was both everything and nothing like I imagined -- and trust me, I spent a lot of time thinking about how it would go! I had a strong sense of what the process of childbirth would be like, but when it comes down to it, you have to go through it to really understand it. The pain and joy of labor and childbirth just can’t be explained in a textbook!

Here are three ways that my birth story was different than I expected:

The Pain: I had a natural birth. To prepare myself for childbirth, I took a twelve-week birthing class and read plenty of books. But I was very surprised to discover that childbirth pain is not constant. There are lots of ‘breaks’ in between contractions. I wouldn’t say that these breaks were a cakewalk, but they were a welcomed relief. Towards the end of labor, when I was getting more tired, my body would even ‘skip’ contractions to let me rest and regain my strength.

Feeling Embarrassed: I thought I’d be embarrassed by the ‘bodily functions’ that accompany childbirth. Most women will poop or pee on the table because of the force of pushing the baby out! The idea of that was so mortifying -- until it happened to me. Trust me: You won’t care when you’re delivering your baby!

“I Hate You!”: In the movies, women always scream at their partners things like, “I hate you! How could you do this to me?” My husband was supportive, loving, and always did exactly what I needed him to do during labor. I never once thought, “I hate you!” Instead, I told him over and over again how much I loved and appreciated him.

And here are two ways my birth story was similar to what I expected:

The Pain: Although the pain was different than I expected in that it wasn’t constant, the overall pain level was what I’d imagined. Before birth, I spent a lot of time imagining what the pain would feel like and how I’d handle it, and that helped me a lot.

The Joy: I imagined that the moment my child was born, I’d look at him and feel this overwhelming and intense sense of joy. And I did! My son’s birth was such a spiritual and transforming experience for my husband and me. The emotional high that I got from delivery ran so deep. It really was the best moment of my life.

Anticipating my Babies’ Premature Birth

Learning you are carrying a twin pregnancy can bring on such a wave of emotions, including the worry that you’ll deliver early. I learned that the average twin pregnancy lasts about 35 weeks, with 38 weeks considered full term. Still, my doctor told me early on she had every reason to believe I could carry to 38 weeks.

Around 27 weeks, I started getting contractions and was already a little dilated. I was placed on bed rest with a home monitoring system to track my contractions twice a day. My doctor told me I might make it to 34 weeks and to expect that my babies would most likely be preemies. My partner and I toured the NICU before I got put on bed rest, so we were prepared in case I delivered early. With the incubators, tiny premature babies, and lots of beeping, the NICU can be overwhelming.

Around 30 weeks, I spent a night in the hospital where I was given steroids to help the babies’ lungs develop and a variety of medications to stop my contractions -- thankfully labor was held off until 34 weeks and beautiful babies were born. My girls weighed around five pounds each. The weeks leading up to their birth were emotional, and I was thrilled that now they were healthy and here with me.

One of the hardest things about an early delivery for me was not being able to hold my daughters right away. I delivered the girls just before 7:00 p.m. but didn’t get to see them in the NICU until almost midnight—except for one quick glance as they were wheeled past me in their incubators). I didn’t get to hold Brooklyn until the second day, and we had to wait until the third day to hold Bailey.

Both girls had breathing masks, feeding tubes, and IVs at first, but they were strong babies and did so well. Each day they made improvements by learning to eat, maintaining their body temperature, and putting on weight. As a new mom, I was so proud and excited when they achieved each milestone; it meant they were closer to coming home. When seeing your little one in the NICU, remember: It is the best place for your child, because they are receiving the medical care they need. Take advantage of the time to learn how to care for your premature baby and ask the nurses all of your questions – the time will fly by! After 11 days, we were able to welcome our girls home!