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Heavily pregnant and uncomfortable woman with hands on her back, indicating potential contractions.

Heavily pregnant and uncomfortable woman with hands on her back, indicating potential contractions.
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4-minute read

What are contractions?

Contractions can be a sign a woman is in labour and getting ready to have her baby. They cause pain, similar to strong period pain. If you are having regular contractions before you are 37 weeks into your pregnancy, seek medical attention right away.

Contractions refers to when the muscles in the womb (uterus) contract, causing pain in the lower tummy and/or back. They move from the top of the uterus to the bottom, and feel like a dull ache. It is usually possible to relax in between contractions.

You might start having irregular contractions during the last few months of your pregnancy. They will feel like your uterus is tightening and then relaxing. These are called Braxton Hicks contractions.

When you go into labour, the contractions change. Unlike Braxton Hicks contractions, these 'true' contractions:

  • come in a regular pattern and gradually get stronger and closer together
  • last about 30 to 70 seconds
  • continue when you change position

Contractions are timed from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next. Usually, you will be advised to stay at home until your contractions are coming every 5 minutes.

Having strong, regular contractions before you are 37 weeks pregnant can be one of the signs of premature labour. If you think you are in premature labour, seek medical help immediately. Labour is very hard to stop once it’s established.

What causes contractions?

Contractions start when the pituitary gland releases the hormone oxytocin. This stimulates the muscles in the uterus to start tightening and relaxing. 

The contractions make the top of the uterus tighten to push the baby down. They also soften and stretch the lower part of the uterus and cervix (the opening to the uterus) to allow the baby through. 

When should I see my doctor?

If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and you are having strong, regular contractions every 10 minutes — or more frequently — call a doctor right away.

Other signs you might be in premature labour include:

  • fluid leaking from your vagina
  • a change in vaginal discharge
  • bleeding from the vagina
  • a dull backache
  • pressure in your vagina or rectum
  • cramps that feel like period pain, with or without diarrhoea
  • your baby stopping moving (or moving less than previously)

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How are contractions treated?

Treatment will only be needed if you are at risk of premature birth. However, contractions alone don’t necessarily mean you are going into labour. It depends what is happening to your cervix. About half of women who get early contractions will have no changes to their cervix, and the contractions will stop by themselves.

Medicines can be used to stop contractions temporarily if you are going into premature labour. This gives time for you to have steroid injections to help the baby’s lungs mature.

Other treatments that may delay the birth once contractions have started include a stitch to the cervix; using progesterone gel or injections; treating infection with antibiotics; and limiting physical activity.

Self-help for contractions

The best way to deal with contractions is to relax. Moving around while you are in labour will help to ease the pain. Hot and cold packs or having a warm bath or shower can also help, as can having a massage or listening to relaxing music during each contraction.

There are various medical options for pain relief during labour, including a sterile water injection in the back for lower back pain, gas, pethidine, or an epidural (a local anaesthetic injected into the back).

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Last reviewed: July 2020

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