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Uterine contractions are a normal progression of a woman’s pregnancy, and are not just associated with childbirth. There are different types of contractions that occur with a healthy uterus. Some become quite common by 37 weeks of development and can be identified by the type of pain and sensation experienced. If a woman learns the characteristics of each, she will know whether she is really in labor or if it is just her uterus getting ready to deliver a newborn baby.
The first type of contractions a woman will experience are Braxton-Hicks contractions. These can start occurring in the sixth month of pregnancy. They are sometimes called false labor contractions, and they serve to condition the uterus for birth by enabling the cervix to dilate so the baby can pass through during childbirth.
Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually painless, and some are barely noticeable. They often go away when body position changes or by drinking water. This will not be the case with early labor contractions, which will get more intense even after drinking water or moving around. A rhythm to the muscle movements might be noticed with these uterine contractions, which tend to begin in the lower back area.
Discomfort becomes more apparent with active labor contractions, which are triggered in regular three to six minute intervals. These uterine contractions get longer and more intense as time goes on, and they occur closer together. Blood or mucus can appear as well, so it is important to be where the birth is expected to take place, whether in the hospital or at home.
Birth contractions consist of transition contractions, which can last up to 90 seconds with very short breaks in between. These are the most difficult to cope with, but last a short time before pushing contractions begin. Pushing contractions stimulate the feeling to push the baby out. The birth is followed by milder contractions that signal the delivering of the placenta. Without an epidural, these are similar in sensation to early labor contractions.
Signs of actual labor or reason for concern include if the uterine contractions get worse during any kind of activity. Pain radiating to the lower abdomen, more frequent and painful contractions, bloody mucus, or a water break all mean medical attention is necessary. If the normal progress of uterine contractions is known, this may alleviate a woman's stress as childbirth approaches.