Contractions During Labour
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Contractions are when the muscle of the womb squeezes and releases the uterus at regular intervals. The purpose of contractions is to force the baby down into the birth canal so they can be born. Before this stage, the contractions are also stretching the opening to the uterus (the cervix), to allow the baby to pass through during its descent. This process of the cervix opening is called dilation, which is spoken about in terms of centimetres. When the cervix has opened to a diameter of ten centimetres, then you are fully dilated and ready to start pushing.
When do contractions occur?
Pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks on average. When a baby is ready to be born, labour will begin and the mother will start experiencing contractions. From 37 weeks of pregnancy, the baby is classed as full term. At this point, going into labour is considered safe. If contractions begin prior to this time, then you may be in preterm or premature labour and should seek medical help immediately. Doctors may try to halt the onset of labour. Where this is not possible, you may be given steroids to help mature the baby's lungs, especially if the baby is likely to arrive early.
Some women experience Braxton Hicks contractions during pregnancy. Known as 'false' or 'practice contractions', for the majority, Braxton Hicks contractions are painless and are felt as a hardening or tightening of your bump. Braxton Hicks are sometimes confused with real labour pains if they become very uncomfortable or are particularly strong. Taking a bath will help ease the pains and they are likely to disappear altogether before long.
Many first time mums worry that they won't know the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and the real thing, but there are few ways to tell them apart. Braxton Hicks contractions tend to be irregular, pass quite quickly and do not get more painful over time. True labour pains may have more of a pattern to them, will increase in frequency and will get more painful.
Do contractions hurt?
The honest answer to this is a resounding yes. Contractions are painful, often starting as mild discomfort very similar to period pain then slowly intensifying to become regular and stronger. Some women get through labour with minimal pain relief, but remember that everyone tolerates pain in a different way and there is no shame in asking for and accepting pain-killing drugs. There are many pain relief options available such as entonox, otherwise known as gas and air, pethidine and epidurals. When in established labour and experiencing frequent contractions, try to think of each contraction as being one less contraction in the journey to meeting your baby.
What do I do when my contractions start?
If you think you are in labour and your contractions are becoming regular and more painful, call your midwife or labour ward. They may offer to examine you to see how you are progressing and to check how dilated your cervix is. The general advice is to stay at home for as long as possible when in labour. Stay in a comfortable and relaxing environment and time your contractions. You may wish to have a bath to help with the pains and take some paracetamol. Online contraction timers are a useful tool for helping you time contractions when in labour. The frequency of contractions are timed from the beginning of the onset of one until the onset of the next and their length is from the start of the pain until it goes away. Once the contractions are coming every five minutes and lasting for a minute or longer, then you should probably make your way into hospital, unless of course you are planning a home birth.
What happens if my contractions don't start or if they stop?
It is not uncommon for women to go past their due date, but in about five percent of cases, pregnancy can last until 42 weeks or beyond. In most circumstances, mums who are significantly overdue are offered an induction to bring on labour. Pessaries and hormone drips are used to encourage the onset of labour and start contractions. These methods of inducing labour are also used where there is a medical need to induce labour or where a labour is failing to progress, as they help speed up and intensify contractions.
While contractions are undoubtedly painful, they are a necessary part of labour and childbirth. They act to squeeze and push the baby down into the birth canal to allow it to be born. To best cope with contractions, choose a form of pain relief which suits you best, and keep your mind open to change. Remember that you instantly forget all the pain the moment you hold your newborn for the first time.