Pregnancy can be scary and confusing, for many different reasons.
But often, a mother-to-be’s biggest concern is what labor feels like. If you’ve never before given birth, you’re probably a little anxious and worried about how labor is going to feel, and how you’ll know when it’s finally happening.
But don’t worry – some women find that labor is nowhere near as bad as they’re expecting it to be, and lots of women find that once the process begins, it’s actually pretty obvious that the process is beginning. If you do some research and some preparation, childbirth may even be easier and more intuitive than you fear.
Want to know what labor feels like? We’ve covered different changes, processes and feelings that occur before and during the entire labor process.
In your journey to and through labor, you’ll experience these main things:
- The loss of your mucus plug and your ‘bloody show’
- Labor contractions
- Your waters breaking
- The actual birthing part
All of these things are part of the labor process, so we’ve addressed them all in this helpful guide. First, let’s take a look at lightening, and how this is often the first clue that you’re soon going into labor.
- What Pre-Labor Lightening Feels Like
- Your Mucus Plug, Your Bloody Show, and What They Look and Feel Like
- What Labor Contractions Feel Like
- How It Feels When Your Waters Break
- What Giving Birth Feels Like
- How You’ll Feel After Giving Birth
- Epidurals and C-Sections
- What You Can Do to Prepare for Going Into Labor
- Final Words
What Pre-Labor Lightening Feels Like
Lightening is the early process of your body gearing up for the birthing to begin, and can happen hours, days or even weeks before you give birth.
Also known as ‘dropping,’ you’ll feel your baby lowering into your pelvis as it makes its journey towards your uterus. You’ll probably find it easier to breathe (because of the extra room in your abdomen), and you’ll likely need to pee more often.
Your Mucus Plug, Your Bloody Show, and What They Look and Feel Like
Your mucus plug is like a cork that plugs up your cervix during pregnancy. When your body discharges it, it looks like a sticky, globby lump of mucus. It’ll likely be clear, but it might be yellow or brown.
You’ll lose this mucus plug up to two weeks before you give birth, but it’ll probably be much closer to the birthing date. You might notice it come out as you’re using the toilet, or you might find it in your underwear.
Your bloody show and your mucus plug are different to one another, and you’ll likely lose your mucus plug first. When your bloody show comes, it’s a blood-tinged discharge that means your delivery is right around the corner.
Your bloody show will be thick, gloopy and maybe even stringy, and it’s a huge sign that your cervix is preparing for an imminent birth. Your bloody show is small but noticeable, and it’s likely to be accompanied by cramps – which are usually the start of your labor contractions.
What Labor Contractions Feel Like
When you’re getting very close to giving birth, you’ll experience your labor contractions. They’re a sure sign that your beautiful baby is on the way, so it’s good to know when your contractions are labor contractions and when they’re not labor contractions.
There are two different types of contractions: labor contractions and Braxton Hicks contractions.
Braxton Hicks Contractions
Braxton Hicks contractions begin around or after the middle part of your pregnancy, so you might have lots of them before you reach anywhere near your due date.
Braxton Hicks contractions feel similar to labor contractions, but they’ll usually subside when you change the position of your body. They don’t increase in severity or frequency as time progresses, and they’re usually accompanied by your baby moving or kicking.
Braxton Hicks contractions are felt more significantly in the lower abdomen, while real labor contractions are usually also felt in the lower back, and sometimes even in the legs.
If you’re having real labor contractions, you’ll find that they’ll become more frequent (and become significantly more painful) as they progress.
Real labor contractions usually last around 30-60 seconds each, and they come around 5-10 minutes apart from one another. As they increase in duration, pain, intensity and frequency, you’ll know your baby is getting closer to emerging.
As your labor contractions are occurring, you’ll usually feel your waters break (though the breaking of your waters can occasionally happen before you start having your contractions).
How It Feels When Your Waters Break
When your waters break, what’s really happening is your amniotic sac is rupturing. It feels like a slow, steady, trickle-like stream of fluid, almost like there’s a slow leak coming from inside of you. Sometimes, the onset of your waters breaking is marked by a popping feeling.
Your waters breaking is a pretty unique feeling, and there’s usually no mistaking that it’s happened.
The main sign that your waters have broken is that you just won’t be able to stop it. You know that feeling when you’re taking a pee, and you know you can stop it if you really want to or need to? When your waters break, it’s different – you won’t be able to stop it no matter how hard you try.
If you wake up covered in fluid, and you’re worried that your waters have broken, you can do a simple smell test. If there’s any scent at all, your waters probably haven’t broken – amniotic fluid has no scent.
Your waters might break during contractions, they might break a little earlier, or they might break when you’re actually lying on the bed giving birth.
Here’s our great guide to the 10 early signs of labor, for even more detail on what to expect before you actually start pushing your baby out. Once you’ve started pushing your baby out, here’s how it’ll feel…
What Giving Birth Feels Like
While everyone’s birth can be different, we’ve broken down some of the major things you can expect during the process.
Intense Cramps During Pushing
For most people, when you start pushing your baby out, your effort will at first be accompanied by what feels like very strong, intense menstrual cramps. They will feel like an intensifying of the cramps and contractions which you’ve already been feeling in the hours leading up to this point.
Cramps and Pain Throughout Your Body
You’ll likely also experience a continuation of what feels like intense muscle cramps throughout your entire body, including in your legs and your lower back. As things progress, you’ll probably feel unable to talk, and unable to properly catch your breath. But if you focus on your breathing, this should get easier.
As your labor progresses, you’ll find that your mind moves away from your breath and everything else around you. At this point, your instincts will kick in, you’ll develop a tunnel vision and all you’ll be able to think about is getting this baby out of there!
You’ll develop a steely determination you’ve never before experienced, and you’ll feel a sensation you’ve never before felt, as your cervix reaches maximum dilation and prepares its exit strategy.
Strong Emotional Reactions
From here, you could react in any number of ways, and there’s no real way of knowing how your emotions will play out. You might get angry, needy, shouty, weepy, angsty, or even laughy. But don’t worry about that – your body and your brain will react the way they need to react.
Harder Contractions and Movement of the Uterus
As your contractions become harder and harder, you’ll be able to see your uterus moving in waves, and there’ll often be some blood.
Finding the “Right” Pushing Motion
At this point, you’ll keep squeezing. You’ll probably try several different types of pushes before you settle on the one that works. Once you hit the right one, you’ll know it – it’ll sort of feel like you’re pooping. Very painful, arduous and lengthy pooping, but pooping.
Lots of women, the moment their beautiful baby pops out, actually think they’ve done a poop, when they’ve actually just given birth.
Strong Vaginal Sensations
You’ll feel your vagina tingling, burning or stinging as your baby’s head emerges, before an unusual wet sensation after your baby finally comes out.
The entire process of delivering your newborn baby usually takes around 6-8 hours for first-timers.
How You’ll Feel After Giving Birth
Sometimes, expectant mothers worry a little about how they’ll feel after giving birth. But you shouldn’t be overly concerned. Your body will react the way it needs to react, and everything will work out. Here are the three main things you can usually expect:
- Heightened emotions; your emotions will probably go up and down, and you’ll experience some mood swings. These will likely abate after a few days.
- You might get afterbirth cramps, which are caused by your womb shrinking back to its regular size.
- Your vagina and perineum may be sore, but this will go away over time.
Your body adapts in many different ways during the 6 weeks after you’ve given birth, but you’ll be back to normal before you know it. If you noticed any lingering symptoms, however – especially those that could signal postpartum depression – don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor.
Epidurals and C-Sections
You might need an epidural. You might need a C-Section. But try not to overly fixate on worrying if you’ll have to have them; only medical professionals can know whether or not you’ll need them.
You’ll chat with these professionals in the days and weeks leading up to your labor, and you’ll chat with them while you’re in labor. Let the informed experience of medical professionals help you to decide what you need to bring your baby into the world. Together, you and your medical team can decide on what is best for you personally.
What You Can Do to Prepare for Going Into Labor
If you’re worried about giving birth (and who isn’t!), here are some pro-tips you can use to help you get through the process:
Consider Joining a Childbirth Class
In these childbirth classes, expectant mothers, new mothers, and others can all share their stories in a very safe space designed to make you feel less worried and more prepared.
Remember That This Is All Worth It
You wanted a baby, you’re having a baby, and after all the pain is gone, you’ll be left with a beautiful little baby worth all the pain in the world.
Remember That You’ll Be Surrounded by Helpful People
Your partner will be there to support you, and all the doctors and nurses have done this a million times before, so they’ll be there to talk you through every step of the process.
Speak to People You Know Who’ve Already Given Birth
Their testimony, stories, and memories will put you at ease. If they made it through the experience, so too can you.
Equally, Remember That Your Birth Is Your Birth
If your experience doesn’t exactly mirror the experience of other people in your life, don’t worry. No two births are exactly the same as each other, and that’s part of what makes it so beautiful.
Most of All, Try Not to Worry
Many women have given birth, and every one of us on the planet is only here because somebody gave birth. It’s all very natural, and it’s all very normal. You’ll almost certainly be fine.
Giving birth is one of the most significant experiences you’ll ever have. It might hurt, it might be lengthy, and it might even not match what you’re expecting. But one thing’s for sure – you’ll be left with a beautiful little baby who’ll be part of your life forever.
If you prepare yourself for how labor will feel, you’ll be able to deal with it better. So get familiar with the above and get excited for your big day!