Early labor for me was, dare I say, painless. Like BH but coming regularly every 10 minutes or so, I would watch my belly tighten up and then relax.... truly without feeling a thing. And if my water hadn't already broken, would I even have noticed them? It was kind of surreal. I went for a walk, made dinner, had a shower, went to bed and fell asleep. Thank goodness we had filled the birthing pool and covered it with insulating blankets just in case.
I woke up a couple hours after going to bed, literally rolled straight out of bed and onto my hands and knees on the floor... OH! That one I could feel! But I'm not sure how I would describe it, other than taking my breath away. I didn't want to keep feeling that either, and immediately got into the pool. In the water it was so much easier... like strong menstrual cramps, with peaks. What surprised me, actually, was how the tightening feeling never let go - I had expected to feel it stop, to be able to relax in between contractions. But it never quite went away, even between the surges.
I stayed in the pool until my daughter was born because I couldn't handle the contractions outside the water. My husband tried to get me to get out and walk for a bit after a couple hours, and I tried to stand up and immediately had a contraction and went straight back in... at one point I needed to pee and thought I could get to the toilet between contractions, but no, again, as soon as I stood up and my belly was out of the water, I had a contraction and it was overwhelming (he brought me a bowl to pee in squatting in the pool...). Without the water, I don't know how I could have managed it or even begin to explain what it felt like; it was an indescribably strong sensation. In the water I was able to identify the elements of tightening, tension, opening, cramping, etc., to explore them and open into them. (Until near the end, lol, then I just bit a towel and roared!)
There seems to be a common theme going on in these responses: You will know a "real" contraction when it comes! And yet, I also am watching and feeling the tightening in my belly and wondering these days.... I don't remember it feeling like this... was that the baby pushing out or my uterus contracting in? Crampy BH or the beginnings of labor?? I wish I knew... I know I will know when the time comes, I just want to see it coming! (Don't we all?!)