Pregnancy means experiencing your body in a totally new way, and contractions are part of the package. So what are Braxton Hicks contractions, and how can you tell them apart from actual labor contractions? Here’s what OB/GYNS want you to know about this unusual sensation.
What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?
“Braxton Hicks contractions are false labor pains caused by the tightening and relaxing of the muscle fibers of the uterus,” Dr. Mary Jacobson (Dr. J), OB/GYN and Chief Medical Officer at Alpha, tells Romper. “Pregnant women experience Braxton Hicks as their body prepares for actual labor.” Because theses are not actual labor contractions, they sometimes go by other terms as well. “Braxton Hicks contractions are often referred to as ‘false contractions’ or ‘practice contractions’,” Dr. Drew Benac, an OB/GYN at Austin Regional Clinic, tells Romper.
When Do They Start?
For the most part, Braxton Hicks contractions may begin sooner than you expect, as noted in Romper, sometimes as early as six weeks of gestation (although you’re unlikely to actually feel these happening). So when do the noticeable Braxton Hicks kick in? “For most women, Braxton Hicks contractions start toward the end of the second trimester; however some women report never experiencing them, so they aren't a ‘given’ in every pregnancy,” Dr. Jane van Dis, Medical Director and board-certified OB/GYN at Maven Clinic, tells Romper.
What Do They Feel Like?
Every doctor interviewed for this piece used the word “tightening” when describing how these contractions feel. “Braxton Hicks contractions feel similar to menstrual cramping, starting with uncomfortable (but painless) tightening that begins at the top of your uterus,” says Dr. J, and they generally last between 30 to 120 seconds. The sensation can also be compared to a “belt tightening around your abdomen,” as Dr. Jane explains. Although the sensation may feel a bit uncomfortable, Braxton Hicks contractions are generally considered painless.
Is It A Sign Of Labor?
Although they aren’t labor contractions, can Braxton Hicks contractions mean real labor is starting soon? In a word, no. If you aren’t near your due date yet, then these practice contractions are not cause for alarm. “Braxton Hicks are uterine contractions that don't lead to preterm labor,” as Dr. Jane explains. Defined as the delivery of a baby before 37 weeks' gestation, preterm delivery is declining in the United States, according to American Family Physician. Definitely discuss your potential for preterm labor with your physician if it’s a concern, but try not to let the Braxton Hicks contractions psyche you out.
How Do You Know They Are Not Real Contractions?
Trying to decide whether that particular feeling is a Braxton Hicks contraction or an actual labor contraction is a concern that faces pregnant people everywhere. Here are some telltale differences.
Braxton Hicks contractions “are often disorganized – or random – in timing,” says Dr. Jane. On the other hand, “labor contractions come at regular intervals and they get more frequent and strong as the labor progresses,” Dr. Aparna Sridhar, associate clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells Romper.
Other doctors back up this idea. “Labor contractions are like a train – the frequency and length of contractions are predictable and unstoppable. They are cyclic and predictable,” says Dr. Jane.
Notice where you feel the contractions in your body. “Often [Braxton Hicks] contractions are mild or barely noticeable and feel like a tightening around the abdomen,” says Dr. Benac. Meanwhile, “true contractions also start at the back and then radiate towards the front,” says Dr. Sridhar.
They Go Away
For many people, Braxton Hicks contractions “might be triggered by a full bladder, excess exercise, dehydration, and even after intercourse,” Dr. Jane explains. But it’s often easy enough to make them go away. “Braxton Hicks contractions often respond to laying down, drinking a tall glass of cold water or a nice warm bath,” says Dr. Jane. On the other hand, labor contractions “do not stop with change in position or hydration,” says Dr. Sridhar. If you’re experiencing more intense, regular contractions, then it may be time to get checked for dilation.
If you’re having any trouble telling the difference between Braxton Hicks and labor contractions, don’t hesitate to call your doctor or midwife for advice. For the most part, Braxton Hicks contractions are a harmless (although sometimes weird-feeling) part of the pregnancy process.
Raines DA, Cooper DB. Braxton Hicks Contractions. [Updated 2021 Jan 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470546/