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The only way to truly find out what labor feels like is to experience it – a bit of a catch-22 for first-timers who want to know what they're in for!
We did the next best thing and asked nearly 1,000 our site readers to tell us about their own labor experiences. No one can predict what your labor will be like, but hearing from those who have been there can help you get familiar with the possibilities.
Labor is different for everyone
Our survey results made one thing clear: Labor is different for every woman, with pain ranging from mild to extreme. Even the experience of labor after epidural varied widely. One mom used the words of Forrest Gump to describe it: "Labor is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get."
Some women described labor as relatively painless:
"My pain was irritating but not unbearable."
"My contractions felt like muscle spasms and weren't very painful."
"At first I didn't know I was in labor and thought I needed to have a bowel movement. By the time we got to the hospital, I was at 10 centimeters. It hurt, but it wasn't that bad."
"It was close to painless, thanks to all the training and prep work I did during pregnancy."
Others reported severe pain:
"I had excruciating pain."
"The pain was all-encompassing."
"I felt like I was being run over by a train."
"I begged my hubby to throw me out of the car on the way to the hospital, it hurt so bad."
Women who got epidurals had mixed results:
"I was induced and got my epidural early, so I only felt minor contractions. It was all fairly easy!"
"I had period-like cramps until I got an epidural. Then I just waited."
"The epidural didn't get rid of everything, like I had hoped. I felt the pressure of each contraction and the pain from the crowning."
"Painful, until I got the epidural! It saved my life!"
"I still felt most of the pain, even after the epidural was in."
Many moms told us that their contractions felt like an extreme version of menstrual cramps, while others compared them to cramps from gas, the stomach flu, or a charley horse.
"My contractions were like menstrual cramps on steroids."
"The cramping went from the top of my stomach down to my pubic area."
"It was like gas pains times a thousand."
"A horrible cramp that started in my back and radiated into my stomach."
"Very painful cramping and tightening that started at the top of my uterus and spread downward and through my back."
"Strong menstrual cramps that came and went. They would start low and radiate up my belly and around into my lower back."
"Like the cramps you get with a really bad stomach flu, but they last longer!"
"Labor feels like charley horses in your lower abdomen."
Several women described the contractions as a "tightening" sensation rather than cramping.
"It felt like my entire stomach was tightening down into a painful little ball. But the contractions were not unbearable at all."
"I literally felt my uterus muscles tightening."
"The contractions felt like my whole body was clenching."
"It was like someone was grabbing all the skin in my back and pulling very slowly until it was tight, then holding it for a minute and releasing."
"I had tightening all over my belly, radiating into my lower back and rectum."
"It felt like someone was squeezing my belly every two or three minutes."
"It was like someone was squeezing my insides as hard as they could."
Some women described labor as more of a pounding or punching feeling.
"Having contractions felt like being hit with something really hard."
"Each contraction felt like getting punched in the stomach – the type of punch that knocks all the air out of you."
"It was like getting punched in the back and the stomach at the same time, but only when the epidural wore off."
In some cases, the labor pain was decidedly more sharp than dull.
"It felt like I was being impaled on a hot fireplace poker."
"It was like someone took a serrated knife and stabbed me in the top of my stomach slowly, slowly sawed downward to my pubic bone, and then stopped for a few minutes and started all over again."
"It felt like a knife going through my cervix."
Several moms felt a burning sensation during the contractions and crowning.
"I was expecting the contractions to feel like intense menstrual cramps, but it felt more like burning."
"I felt a burning pain that spread across my lower abdomen and then slowly eased up as a contraction ended."
"During crowning there was a definite burning sensation, but I did tear, and that made it feel so much better, believe it or not."
We tend to think of labor pains as occurring in the abdomen, but for some, the pain is in the back.
"I had terrible back pain. I didn't have any contractions in my stomach like you see in the movies."
"It felt like a really bad backache."
"It felt like a Mack truck running over my spine over and over again."
"It felt like a knife in my back with every contraction. I was literally trying to get away from my own back."
Pain in other areas
Legs, hips, and the rectal area were also fair game for pain.
"I had rectal pain with each contraction from the very beginning."
"I had an hour of labor before my epidural was placed with really bad cramping along my upper thighs."
"It felt as though a 400-pound man was pressing down on each hip."
"I felt sharp aching in my hips."
"It felt like someone was stabbing me in the butt and hips from the inside. I had no pain in my back or tummy."
Labor certainly isn't a trip to the beach, but many women described the wavelike effect of contractions.
"Each contraction felt like a wave of pain that rose, peaked, and fell."
"I could feel each contraction coming on, building and building, then peaking and coming down. When the contraction was over, I felt completely fine."
"I had very intense waves of pain, coming right on top of one another."
Lots of women felt pressure, even before the pushing stage. The most common analogy used to describe the sensation? All decorum aside, think having to poop.
"After the epidural, it just felt like so much pressure. I was surprised that it felt like I had to have a bowel movement rather than pressure in the vagina."
"You feel like you want to poop really bad, and there's some pressure pushing down."
"It felt like a big poop, to be completely honest."
"When my contractions started, I thought I had to have a bowel movement."
"I felt extreme pressure on my rectum."
"I had lots of pressure in the groin area."
"I had extreme pressure on my tailbone and vagina."
"It felt like I had to take a giant poop! Honestly! The pressure was insane!"
"Transition made me feel like I had to move my bowels."
"When the contractions were beginning, before they really hurt, it just felt like I had to go to the bathroom!"
Many women described pushing as a relief, while others found it painful.
"There is a ton of pressure, and once you start pushing it hurts so bad to stop."
"My contractions were manageable but the rectal pressure was intense! It was relieving to push and incredibly relieving to push him out."
"Pushing felt awful, like I was constipated times a hundred and trying to push a baby out of my butt!"
"Pushing was great because I could finally do something."
"I felt contractions during pushing that were pretty bad, but the pushing made them stop hurting."
"I had deep waves of intense pain up until I was able to push. Then the pain became part of the background noise, as though I was in an altered state."
Connected, or not, with the body
While some women felt very present in their bodies during labor, others felt separated.
"I felt like I was not in control of my body."
"My body wanted to take over and do its own thing."
"It felt like an out-of-body experience."
"I was stuck between agony with my contractions, ecstasy when I sneaked a push in, and feeling like I was trying to stop a freight train (trying not to push when the urge was there). I have never been more in my body."
"It was very calm. I was working with my body and felt very empowered."
"I felt like my body knew what to do, and I went with the flow. I think being fearful contributes to the pain level a lot. As the fear lessened, the pain became less grueling."
They don't call it labor for nothing. Moms definitely acknowledged how much work was involved.
"It was very consuming. I was unable to think of or do anything else after contractions started."
"It was a lot of physical work, kind of like doing weight training at the gym with heavy weights."
"If I could describe it, I would say it was the hardest work I have ever done in my life."
"It was exhausting. I hadn't eaten, so I had very little energy and had to be on oxygen for about half my labor."
"The pushing made time fly, but at the same time really exhausted me in a way that I wasn't prepared for."
The sunny side of labor
Even if your own piece from that box of labor chocolates turns out to be considerably less than tasty, remember that childbirth has a definite sunny side, as celebrated by many our site moms.
"It was the most beautiful pain I've ever felt."
"It was amazing. Painful, yes, but I could see (with a mirror) my baby coming out!"
"I was cracking jokes between contractions. I had a blast and was not afraid."
"It felt natural, like my body was meant to do it and I should just let it happen."
"It was painful, of course, but it was a different pain. I had never really felt pain with a purpose. Somehow knowing the end result and that it was normal made it easier to bear."
"Emotionally, it was amazing. Many people say the pain disappears once your child is in your arms, and they're right!"