“I’m starting contractions!” In movies and on television shows, that cry means a mother’s about to start childbirth. In real life, however, contractions can come and go during pregnancy. Understanding the various kinds of contractions–and why they occur–can help relieve some stress during pregnancy. It can also help mothers-to-be recognize and take action when contractions may indicate potential problems.
Labor contractions can begin days or hours before pregnancy. These contractions occur at regular intervals, but get closer together as childbirth nears. They also increase in strength over time.
Regular contractions that don’t trigger the birth process can occur in the ninth month of pregnancy. Known as false labor, these contractions can be difficult to distinguish from labor contractions.
Irregular contractions, known as Braxton-Hicks contractions, can occur throughout the later stages of pregnancy. They are not related to labor. They seem to prepare a woman’s body for childbirth. These contractions may or may not be painful. Walking or changing position can sometimes make the contractions stop.
Painful, regular contractions before a pregnancy reaches full term can indicate that premature labor has started. This occurs in about one of every eight pregnancies.
Braxton-Hicks contractions help to stretch and thin the cervix, preparing the way for the baby during delivery.
Labor contractions represent the beginning of the childbirth process. They may occur along with cramps and discomfort, or be relatively painless. Actual intensity of the contractions vary by individuals. However, in all cases, true labor contractions will become more powerful and closer together as birth nears.
Premature contractions should be brought to attention of a health care provider at once. Babies born prematurely face a higher risk of developmental delays, health problems and death. In some cases, early identification of premature labor can be halted, allowing more time for the fetus to develop in the womb.
Regular, rhythmic contractions may also occur during sex, especially in orgasm. Sexual contractions seem to be side effects of orgasm, and they generally do not harm the fetus. Some doctors advise against sex during high-risk pregnancies, out of concern that contractions may lead to premature labor.
For most women, true labor begins when contractions are spaced 5 to 10 minutes apart; their water has broken; they experience some vaginal bleeding; and contractions interfere with movement or speech.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warns pregnant women to call their health care provider if they experience regular or frequent contractions or uterine tightening, even if it is painless. Women should also seek medical help whenever they have concerns about their physical health or the health of the fetus.