What are braxton hicks contractions?

What are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

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February 13, 2020
4 min read

Toward the end of your pregnancy, you might start wondering how you’ll know when you’re in labour. It can be especially confusing if you experience contractions in the second or third trimester that go away without leading to labour. These are called Braxton Hicks contractions, and they're one of the ways your body gets ready for labour.

What's in this article:

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions? What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like? How Early Can Braxton Hicks Contractions Start? Braxton Hicks vs. True Labour Contractions

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Also known as "false labour" or "practice" contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions (named after the doctor who first identified them) are not actual labour contractions, but they are caused by the muscles of the uterus tightening, just as real labour contractions are. Braxton Hicks contractions help your body prepare for birth by tightening and relaxing the uterine muscles, although they're not actually opening the cervix. This will happen when true labour contractions start. Knowing how long your contractions last and how frequently they occur can help you determine whether you’re experiencing real labour contractions or not.

What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

Braxton Hicks contractions can be mild—you may detect sensations of tightening and relaxing of the uterus—but they can also be a bit more painful. These contractions may start out feeling something like familiar menstrual cramps, but can grow more intense in the final few weeks of pregnancy.

Luckily, there are a few ways to help ease the discomfort of these contractions, while also confirming that labour hasn't started yet. Try to change positions if you're seated or lying down, or go for a brief walk if possible. Movement can help these contractions subside. False contractions are also more likely to strike when you're dehydrated, so be sure to drink plenty of water, especially as your due date approaches.

How Early Can Braxton Hicks Contractions Start?

Braxton Hicks contractions usually start in the third trimester, although you might notice them in the second trimester as well. They may begin a little earlier if this is not your first pregnancy.

When these contractions begin in the second trimester, they are generally mild, and they're more likely to strike after physical activity, like exercise or sex. They'll usually pass quickly, but if they become painful or regular, let your healthcare provider know right away.

Braxton Hicks vs. True Labour Contractions

If you notice contractions before your 37th week of pregnancy, you might worry you’re going into preterm labour at the first sign of a contraction. And, if your pregnancy is full term, you might be wondering whether the contraction you’re feeling is another Braxton Hicks or if it’s finally the real deal.

To help sort this out, familiarize yourself with the symptoms of labour. It also helps to know what Braxton Hicks contractions feel like, and to keep in mind the following differences between Braxton Hicks and true labour contractions:

Braxton Hicks Contractions True Labour Contractions
Contractions are irregular and do not become more frequent. They may occur, for example, in intervals of ten minutes, then six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc. Contractions are regular, predictable (such as every eight minutes), and grow closer together over time.
Contractions do not become more intense. You experience a steady increase in frequency and strength of contractions.
Contractions are felt in the front of the body. Each contraction is felt starting at the lower back, and then radiating around to the front, low in the groin.
A change in activity or position may cause contractions to lessen or stop. A change in activity or position will not slow or stop contractions.

If you're not sure whether you're experiencing Braxton Hicks or true labour contractions, consult your healthcare provider. And if you notice any of the following signs of labour, contact your provider right away:

  • Abdominal cramps or pressure
  • Changes in vaginal discharge (discharge that is clear, pink, or slightly bloody or brownish could mean the mucus plug has come out)
  • Dull lower backache
  • Your water breaking.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Q: How Long Do Braxton Hicks Last?
  • Q: What Causes Braxton Hicks Contractions?
  • Q: When Am I Really in Labour?
  • Q: What Are the Most Common Braxton Hicks Symptoms?

Braxton Hicks contractions can cause a little discomfort, but they’re a completely normal part of pregnancy. They play a key role in helping your body prepare for the big day when you actually go into labour.

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How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below.
The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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All resources links

ACOG: How to Tell When Labor Begins

ACOG:

Mayo Clinic: Third trimester pregnancy: What to expect

Mayo Clinic: Second trimester pregnancy: What to expect

Mayo Clinic: Preterm labor

Mayo Clinic: Pregnancy week by week

Mayo Clinic: Signs of labor: Know what to expect

Women’s Health: Labor and birth

NCBI: Braxton Hicks Contractions

Kid’s Health: Pregnancy Calendar – week 39

Book: Your Pregnancy and Childbirth: Month to Month, Sixth Edition Paperback – January 1, 2016by American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (Author)

Book: You and Your Baby: Pregnancy, by Dr. Laura Riley (Meredith Books, 2006)

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