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  • Different Types of Contractions and What They Mean

    Maybe you just found out you're pregnant and your mind is already picturing the finish line of labor--the sweating, panting, bed-rail gripping contractions that you've seen in every movie where there's a birth. What you might not know yet, is that there are a few different types of contractions, and you'll feel them long before you ever get to that whole labor thing.

    You might even feel a few as soon as the pregnancy test shows a positive result. Crazy, Right?

    Here are some different contractions you will experience during pregnancy, and what they might mean:

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    First Trimester: Causes Of Mild Contractions

    Stretching Ligaments

    You're most likely familiar with the cramping that comes with your menstrual cycle each month, as your body works to rid itself of the uterine lining it had prepared for a baby but didn't need.

    So when you're actually pregnant and not even showing, it can be a huge surprise when you begin to feel mild contractions. These are caused by your uterus working to expand to house your growing baby by stretching the ligaments around it.

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    Dehydration

    In every stage of pregnancy it is imperative that you drink enough water to support your body in this incredible feat of growing another human. Without enough fluid, muscles contract, and this includes your uterus. If you're experiencing these mild uterine contractions early in pregnancy, it is a good idea to think about how much water you've had that day.

    Grab a glass of H2O and lay down for a bit to see if the contractions ease. Make sure that the fluids you're consuming are caffeine free and aren't full of sugar, as these can both cause dehydrate your body instead of replenish lost fluids.

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    Constipation

    Constipation during the first trimester is a common problem, and it can often be severe. The strain of constipation can also cause contractions in early pregnancy, as can the gas pains as a result of it.

    Eating fruits, vegetables, and drinking lots of water can help keep the body in better balance. If the constipation is severe, think about talking to your doctor to see what he or she recommends to get things moving along again.

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    A Word Of Caution

    If the contractions are causing any spotting, bleeding, or stomach pain, give your doctor a call right away. Early in pregnancy, some spotting can be considered normal, but it's always worth mentioning to your doctor. Chances are, everything is fine but you'll want a professional opinion to ease your mind that you are not miscarrying or having an ectopic pregnancy.

    An ectopic pregnancy happens when a fertilized egg attaches itself somewhere other than the uterus, and it happens in one in every fifty pregnancies.  The bottom line is, advocate for yourself, and don't be afraid to address any concerns with your doctor.

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    Second Trimester: Braxton Hicks

    You've made it through the wild and crazy (or just sleepy and nauseating) first trimester, and now here you are--right in the middle of pregnancy, with an ever expanding middle. This is when those Braxton Hicks contractions really start to show themselves.

    They've been happening since your sixth week of pregnancy, but at that point they weren't noticeable. You'll probably feel a lower abdominal tightening that has a definite peak and then release. Your stomach will harden and then soften as your uterus contracts and then relaxes. They'll happen randomly and in no predictable pattern.

    You might notice they happen mostly when you're walking or on your feet, but they can also happen with no physical movement at all. They're pretty painless and mild for the most part, though I can say from personal experience that some can be more intense- especially the ones that come further along in pregnancy.

    If you have more than a few in an hour, give your doctor a call to let them know. Here's another reason to drink some water and put your feet up, if for no other reason than to relax. Pregnancy is hard work for your body, reward it with rest whenever you can.

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    After Sex Contractions

    It is normal to have uterine contractions after having sex. Both orgasm and the prostaglandins in semen can cause your uterus to contract, but don't worry, this is normal.

    To ease these contractions, drink a few glasses of water and put your feet up. As long as you are having a complication free and uneventful pregnancy, sex is absolutely safe and will not be harmful to you or the baby. Always check with your doctor to make sure you are cleared to do the deed, just in case he or she has any recommendations for you specifically

    Spotting after sex can be normal as well, as the blood vessels on the cervix are more delicate during pregnancy, and a penis rubbing against it can damage them more easily. If cramping continues, and/or you begin bleeding as you would during a menstrual cycle, please call your doctor immediately as this could mean that the placenta is separating from the uterine wall. This is an emergency situation and needs prompt attention.

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    Rest That Cervix

    If you've previously had preterm labor or currently have placenta previa, your doctor may ask that you refrain from sex and place you on something called "pelvic rest" which is a nice way of saying "no orgasms, no sex, and refrain from straining your cervix by lifting heavy furniture."

    Basically, no action of any kind below the belt, but you get the idea. Sometimes placenta previa can resolve itself during the pregnancy and the ban on sex and/or orgasm is lifted, but you'll need your doctor to do an ultrasound to confirm this for you first.

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    Third Trimester

    You're here! You've made it! The finish line that looked like a dot in the distance when you started this journey is now where you stand, and soon you'll be meeting your little one. It's time to gear up for the big finish and decipher what all of these aches and pains might mean.

    When is it time for the hospital? When is it time for a bowl of ice cream? (Answer:Always) I'll try and help you figure out what all of this means now that you're down to the wire.

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    Braxton Hicks (Yes, These Again)

    These lovely contractions have been with you since the beginning of your pregnancy, like a faithful and annoying companion on a road trip that you'd like to leave at a rest stop. During the first and second trimesters, these contractions were mild and even unnoticed, but as your third trimester progresses these will suddenly begin to demand a bit more of your attention and time.

    As your body continues to press on toward the goal line, the braxton hicks contractions will continue to be irregular, but they will come more frequently. They might feel more intense (the code word for painful or uncomfortable), and you'll definitely be able to recognize them for what they are at this point.

    Don't worry though, soon enough all of this contracting and relaxing will bring you the the sweet little one you've been dreaming of. Keep your eye on the prize!

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    Prodromal Labor Contractions

    Did I just use the "L" word? I did! That's because labor, in its prodromal form is here! What does that mean? It means that at this point the irregular contractions you are experiencing that stop and start are working to thin out your cervix in preparation for the big event.

    They may be strong or mild, and can last for hours or even days. Prodromal labor usually happens in the days leading up to birth, so it's a good idea to give your doctor a call if you think this is what you're feeling--especially if you're feeling as though they are happening in any sort of pattern. These contractions may feel more achy than sharp, and you might feel pressure in your lower back as well.

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    Early Labor Contractions

    It's really happening now! As your labor progresses (which can take many hours, don't say I didn't warn you), the contractions will begin to last longer and will come at regular intervals.

    Usually these contractions are stronger as well and can last somewhere between twenty-five and forty-five seconds. They will also be about five minutes apart, but none of these times are exact and yours may be shorter or longer. You might also notice a pinkish vaginal discharge during this time, a sign that active labor is approaching.

    This is the time to place a call to your doctor for his or her recommendation on what to do. Describe your symptoms and be prepared to let them know how often the contractions are coming and how long they are lasting. If your doctor says you have time to spare, then do what makes you comfortable. Sit on a birthing ball, take a shower, lay on your side, walk with your partner- do whatever feels right to you.

    Practice any breathing techniques you've learned to breathe through each contraction with your partner. You might also want to eat a small meal before you go to the hospital, as most hospitals won't allow you to eat once you're admitted. Be sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated too.

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    Active Labor

    It's go time! This is what you've been training for, and it's time to meet your precious baby. The contractions during this time are longer and stronger, and coming much closer together, about every three minutes or so. Again, these times can be different for everyone. This phase of labor usually takes two to six hours as your cervix continues the process of thinning and dilating.

    You will probably feel as though the only thing you can concentrate on during this time is each contraction as it comes, and that is okay. Now is the time to rely on your care team and supportive loved ones to help you remain motivated and confident. You can do this.

    Do what you need to do to get through each contraction. Whether that's moving more or leaning over something (or someone) and breathing--do what your body is asking you to do. Try not to panic and remember that this is pain with a purpose--it's getting you closer to meeting your new baby!

    Your partner or anyone else that is in the room should be working to make you comfortable- whether that's providing a shoulder to lean on or helping you to remember the visualizations you practiced in birthing class.

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    Transition

    Contractions in the transition period of labor are longer and stronger than ever. During this time it is important that you have the support of a partner or friend to help you maintain your focus and determination of working through each contraction.

    The good news is that these contractions are extremely effective and therefore the transition time is usually less than an hour long. Women in transition might feel nauseated, and may shake, as their cervix completes the dilation process and dilates to ten centimeters.

    Once you are completely  dilated to ten centimeters the contractions will be accompanied by an intense urge to push. As your baby gets lower and lower into the birth canal, you will feel a greater desire to push. Your baby's head will emerge first, with his body following shortly after, usually during the next contraction. Congratulations! Your baby is here!

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    Contractions After Birth (It's Not Over Yet?)

    Delivery of the Placenta

    After your baby is born you will need to deliver the placenta. Don't worry, the contractions that accompany this delivery are not as intense as those you just went through to get your baby here. Sometimes the doctor will give you a dose of medication to help your body to contract enough to allow the placenta to detach from the uterine wall.

    The nurses will massage your stomach to encourage your uterus to contract and release the placenta. This isn't always the most pleasant of feelings, but it is absolutely necessary. Once you deliver the placenta the nurses and doctor will examine it to make sure it is complete, as any remaining pieces of placenta can cause infection. You will most likely be so busy with your new little one, this will all be barely a blip on your birth radar.

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    Nursing Contractions (But Wait, There's More!)

    During pregnancy your uterus had to grow from the size of an orange to the size of a watermelon. That's a large amount of growth in a relatively short period of time. It's got a lot of shrinking to do to get back to it's original size. It does this by contracting, and nursing stimulates the contractions that help it to shrink back to normal size.

    These contractions feel a lot like menstrual cramps, or labor contractions without an intense peak. They're annoying and sometimes painful, but bearable.

    It takes about six weeks for your uterus to contract completely back down to its previous size of an orange, but the contractions will be most noticeable for the first few days to a week after birth. You can also ask your recovery nurses for pain relief if they become too distracting, after all, you've got a beautiful new baby to focus on now that deserves all of your attention.

    So there you have it. All of the different ways your body will contract from the beginning of pregnancy to birth. Your body goes through a lot to prepare itself to welcome another person into the world, and it is worth taking the time to appreciate all it does to complete the miracle of birth.

    Lead photo credit - ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

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