You feel something in your belly you haven’t quite felt yet. Immediately your mind goes there. “Was that what I think it is?”

And depending on where you’re at in pregnancy – you may be wondering if that “it” is your baby moving. Or a contraction.

Before we talk about how to know the difference, let’s talk about how each might feel.

pregnant woman wondering, "Did I just feel baby's movements or contractions?"

Adobe Stock/nicoletaionescu

Your baby’s movements might feel like this:

Between 16-25 weeks in gestation, you should start feeling your baby move. These first movements are called quickening. (Some moms, especially those who have been pregnant before, report feeling this quickening as early as around 12-15 weeks.)

So how do you know if you’re feeling your baby’s first movements? Your baby’s first fist bumps and kicks might feel a bit like butterfly wings tickling you from the inside. Some women report if feels a bit like bubbles popping. Other moms have said it feels like that stomach-drop kind of feeling you get on a roller coaster. Others say it felt like gas. (Lovely, we know). You may not realize it is your baby until it has happened a few times, and you begin recognizing the sensation.

But one thing these early movements are not is painful. That comes later when your baby is both bigger and stronger.

Once your baby is growing, those movements are going to feel a lot more distinct. You’ll likely be able to recognize different types of movement such as kicks, stretches, hiccups, and somersaults.

As baby gets stronger, she can really begin packing a punch. Movements in the third trimester can be painful. Baby might wallop you in the ribs. Or decided to stretch arms and legs, pushing out on both sides of your belly. Sometimes you might be tempted to give a little push back. (Gently, of course).

There is one thing to know about baby’s movements . . . no matter how crowded your womb gets your baby should not become less active. Sure, you may start noticing a pattern of when your baby is active and when he is asleep. But if you are tracking baby’s movements as you should be, and you notice a change in your baby’s activity, get immediate medical attention. (Read more about the importance of baby’s movements here.)

A contraction may feel like this:

A contraction is the muscles in your uterus contracting or tightening, then relaxing. It is possible to feel contractions in every stage of pregnancy. Early on, a contraction may feel like a cramp. This, of course, is challenging for any mom because pregnancy naturally makes you a bit crampy. (Well, that and the wonderful changes your GI system goes through in pregnancy.) One way to help you determine if it’s just gas, your womb stretching a bit, or a contraction is to try to pay attention to these two things:

  • How long the cramping lasts.
  • If it happens in a pattern (such as lasting for 30-60 seconds, stopping, and then coming back).

As your pregnancy continues, the sensation of tightening may get stronger and can be painful. These contractions are often called Braxton Hicks or false labor. You may feel like your whole belly becomes a hard ball and is hard to the touch. These contractions help strengthen the muscles in your womb to prepare for birth.

In spite of the term “false” labor, it’s important to note that any contraction is a real contraction. The difference medically is whether it causes changes to either the thickness of your cervix or dilation (opening). You may not be able to tell if your contractions are causing cervical changes just based on how the contraction feels to you. Talk to your provider about when you need to be seen for contractions.

According to The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), your contractions are more likely to cause cervical changes if[1]“How to Tell When Labor Begins,” The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), May 2011, :

  • They come at regular intervals that you can time (lasting somewhere between 30 seconds to over a minute).
  • They increase in frequency and intensity over time.
  • The sensation starts in your back and works its way across your belly.
  • They increase in pain, eventually to the point where you may have difficulty talking or walking.
  • They continue even with rest or a change in movement.
  • They come with signs of cervical changes or the rupture of your membranes[2]“Labor & Delivery,” Cleveland Clinic, July 26, 2016,–delivery.

Your contractions are less likely to be true labor pains if:

  • They are irregular – they come at different intervals you cannot predict.
  • They are intermittent – you get a few here or there without establishing any sort of pattern.
  • They peter out – they may have a pattern for a short amount of time and then slow or stop altogether.
  • They don’t hurt (though some women report Braxton Hicks to be as painful as early labor contractions.)
  • They go away after rest or changing movement.
  • They do not get more intense over time or weaken over time.
  • You feel them only in the front of your belly.

If you have established that you are feeling contractions, and you are having a difficult time knowing if you are in labor, please contact your doctor right away. The more information you have based on the above criteria can help them triage better. But if you think you may be having true labor contractions, please be seen, especially if you are early.

Please note, you cannot rely on how painful a contraction is to determine if you are in labor. Painless contractions can cause cervical thinning or dilation. Do not worry about bothering your doctor. If you are concerned at all, your doctors will want you to call and take precautions, especially if you are before 38 weeks.

How to know if it’s your baby moving or a contraction.

OK, now that we know all about movements and contractions – if you are still unsure what exactly you are feeling, evaluate the following:

  • Can you pinpoint the sensation to a specific spot? Contractions are likely to be felt all over your belly, sometimes including your back. Whereas fetal movement is likely to be felt in a certain place.
  • Can you time the sensation? If the sensation lasts between 30-90 seconds, and then goes away, only to come back for another 30-90 seconds, it is more likely a contraction. If it is a swift pain or a sensation that comes a few times in an unpredictable pattern, it is more likely to be your baby.
  • Does it feel like tightening? If your body feels like it is squeezing like a rubber band that’s too tight, you probably are experiencing a contraction. But if it feels like a sharp pain (a jab), a rhythmic sensation that doesn’t tighten your belly (hiccups), like your belly is flip-flopping (a somersault), or a pressure your feel in two spots (a stretch), then your baby is probably just being active.
  • Does the sensation respond to your touch? If you push ever so gently back, does the sensation change, move, or go away altogether? If so, you’re playing a fun game of tag with baby. If your whole belly feels hard to the touch and does not diminish when you push gently on it, you are likely having a contraction.

When to be concerned.

Feeling your baby move can be exhilarating. And experiencing your first contractions can be exciting as well as you wonder if meeting your precious baby is right around the corner. However, there are a few circumstances that warrant medical attention.

  • If you have not felt your baby move by 25 weeks, it’s important to tell your provider and be seen. Do not rely on a doppler reading of your baby’s heartbeat to assume everything is ok.
  • A change in your baby’s normal pattern of movement. If your baby is moving less in a way that is concerning, call your provider right away. This may indicate your baby is in distress and needs immediate medical attention. Again, do not rely on just hearing your baby’s heartbeat. You must be seen.
  • A cramp that does not go away. If you are experiencing sharp pain or tightening that does not relax after a short period of time like a contraction, call your provider right away.
  • Any sign of true labor or cervical changes earlier than full-term.
  • Having significant pain anywhere other than in your uterus – including shoulder tip pain, pain under your sternum, or upper right quadrant pain.
  • Pain that is accompanied by headache, nausea, vomiting or fever.
  • If your gut just tells you something doesn’t feel right, please call your provider.

Hopefully, you’ll be feeling your baby move very soon, if not already. Use those moments to try to bond with your baby.

And once those contractions start, pay attention to the length, duration, pattern, and intensity of the sensation. As long as everything is going according to plan, those contractions are doing their job to get you one step closer to meeting your baby face to face.

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