When Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Start? (Hint: It's Earlier Than You Think)

by Jacqueline Burt Cote

Everybody knows that pregnancy comes with a variety of side effects (morning sickness, swollen feet, heartburn, mood swings), all of which can range from mildly unpleasant to downright disabling. Of course not every woman experiences every side effect, but many do get Braxton Hicks contractions: Uterine contractions that are similar to what happens during labor (but with less frequency and intensity), sometimes they're even mistaken for the real thing. So when can you expect Braxton Hicks to start for you?

First, it's important to understand exactly what these oftentimes annoying spasms are all about. During a Braxton Hicks contraction, the muscles of the uterus tighten for anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Experts believe these "false" contractions help to prepare the uterine muscle for labor and promote blood flow to the placenta; they're also thought to help soften the cervix. But because Braxton Hicks aren't anywhere near as strong as labor contractions, this involuntary form of childbirth practice can go on for quite awhile.

As a mother-of-three, Braxton Hicks kicked in for me at around five months every time (though slightly earlier with each successive pregnancy). They were also incredibly powerful and persistent; by the end, it felt like I couldn't even move without my belly turning into a rock hard ball. I can recall several occasions when I was walking down the street or through the grocery store and needed to stop and find something to hold on to until the contraction passed, but I was still weeks away from labor.

Other women, however, say they barely even notice Braxton Hicks. As bestselling author Heidi Murkoff explained on the What to Expect website:

"While they're quite intense in some women (especially those who've had a baby before), they can be so mild in others that they're overlooked."

Assuming you're one of the moms-to-be who don't have Braxton Hicks mild enough to "overlook," when will you start to feel them? They start a lot earlier than you might think, according to research from the University at Buffalo published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Like, way earlier: at around six weeks gestation!

Pretty amazing, considering there are plenty of women who are just starting to realize their period is a little late at that point. That doesn't mean you'll have any idea what your uterus is up to just yet, though. As the same research found, most women don't start to feel any Braxton Hicks until the second or even third trimester of pregnancy.

As for whether expecting moms who get more or less Braxton Hicks go on to have different types of labor experiences (as in early vs. late or slow vs. fast), there don't appear to be any scientifically proven connections. (Personally, I will say that all three of my labors were speedier than average, ranging from approximately three to six hours. Whether my frequent Braxton Hicks had anything to do with this, I have no idea.)

The key thing to remember is that while real contractions cause cervical changes that make it possible for your body to deliver your baby, Braxton Hicks contractions don’t directly lead to labor, as Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida, told The Bump.

“Braxton Hicks contractions are just annoying and create a lot of ambiguity: Are you in labor or is this fake?” Greves said.

Truth: Sometimes it's hard to know! As the American Association of Pregnancy explained, these signs distinguish Braxton Hicks from the real deal:

  • Irregular in intensity
  • Infrequent
  • Unpredictable
  • Non-rhythmic
  • More uncomfortable than painful (although for some women Braxton Hicks can feel painful)
  • They do not increase in intensity or frequency
  • They taper off and then disappear altogether

Naturally, and as always, if you're ever worried that something isn't right, call your healthcare provider right away. But don't freak out! Oftentimes, even the most bizarre preggers moment turns out to be a totally normal occurrence. Like your uterus giving itself a good workout!

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.