The Contraction Question

“I don’t think I’m in labour yet. I feel it really low down, all in front. It’s not hurting ALL OVER.” said the doctor (my client) on the phone.

“ALL OVER?” I asked, sounding like a parrot.


“Um...if all is well, it shouldn’t hurt all over.” I was just a little bit confounded. Here I was, talking on the phone with a physician who’s been attending births for years. She’s amazing with her patients, so intuitive. Now, in labour for the first time, she was just as confused as everyone else in labour.

“Um...” I decided to go over the "what do contractions feel like?" question. “Primarily, you should feel it down very low, near the pubic bone, like menstrual cramps, getting gradually longer and stronger over time. It can give you that drag-your-bum-down feeling. You may feel a sensation of heat wash over you, just like you’ve opened a pizza oven. You may feel shivery on and off. You might feel nauseous. You might have it radiate to your lower back. Everyone experiences a variation on the theme. But, you definitely shouldn't have that “grab your tummy and crumple up in agony because it hurts all over pain” as seen on TV. That’s just drama for TV. Real labour is something that you know on so many levels. And it’s not linear. It doesn’t just get exponentially worse like on TV. It ebbs and flows.”

“Yes, I remember you telling me that. But I didn’t believe you or all the other women. So,” she asked, “when we palpate the contractions of a woman in labour by feeling the top of her uterus, she doesn’t feel any excruiciating pain up there?

“Not in a normal labour. It’s only when there’s something wrong and the body needs to get the message across BIG TIME that you can feel pain in weird places. If everything's fine, you should just feel the contractions way down low.”

“So...uh...what I’ve been feeling all day might be labour?”

“Probably. The start of labour is something that you will only figure out retrospectively. But, I can hear in your voice that you’re having contractions about every four minutes. You keep fading out. How about if I come over, and we can figure it out together.”

Well, to make a long story short, I went over to find that she WAS in active labour. Her lovely son was born only a few hours later.

Now, I don’t tell this story to poke fun at my client, the physician, but to show that, no matter who we are, we all have various ideas about how contractions may feel. We've been bombarded by descriptions all our lives. But these descriptions tell us more about the person who is doing the describing than about contractions themselves. Our perceptions are unique. So, whether we’re a family doctor with years of training and experience, or have read every book there is on pregnancy, or have listened closely to all our friends describe their experiences, our personal experience of contractions will be unique.

No matter what, even if this is your first labour, the contractions will be something that you recognize. They may not be what you expected, but they will be something that you "know" on a gut level. Hey, you're not going to get to age 30-something and then have the body throw you a complete curve ball, are you? Trust your body to let you know what it needs. As a doula, my role is to help you navigate your particular labour, no matter who you are, and what kind of labour you are "given". I try to help you shut down your 21st century brain, and accept the logic of the reptile brain.

And, wonderfully, that’s exactly what this doctor had done in her own labour.

I think one of the reasons she had such a smooth labour was because she didn’t NAME it “labour” until her body forced her to acknowledge it. She didn’t watch the clock. She didn’t waste emotional energy waiting for labour to speed up, or to perform in any particular way. She just let it go, basically ignoring it, just like you would try to ignore cramps during a particularly nasty period. Who cares that she'd done all this because she was expecting something FAR worse than the reality.

I’m actually in awe of her way of getting through labour.

Maybe we should all try it.