You've probably heard that as you near your due date, your uterus contracts occasionally as it grows, stretches, and "practices" for giving birth. These practice contractions are called Braxton-Hicks contractions and they are perfectly normal.
However, about 10 percent of pregnant women experience preterm labor contractions. Unlike Braxton-Hicks, preterm labor contractions are the real thing. They indicate your labor is starting before your baby is ready to be born.
How can you tell whether you're experiencing Braxton-Hicks or preterm labor contractions? The differences are mostly in the frequency, intensity, and duration. Here's what to look for:
You'll start to notice Braxton-Hicks contractions in your third trimester. They may feel like a generalized tightening of your uterus, almost as though it were balling up; or they may feel like the baby is doing a somersault. The contractions usually aren't painful and almost always stop after an hour or so. Although all women have Braxton-Hicks, not all women feel them, particularly with their first baby. So don't be alarmed if you never experience them.
Preterm Labor Symptoms
Preterm labor contractions can occur anytime between the 20th and 37th week of pregnancy. They do not stop, and they may become more frequent, regular, and uncomfortable over time.
Preterm labor signs to look for:
- Menstrual-like cramps above the pubic bone
- Pressure or achy feeling in the pelvis, thighs, or groin
- Dull, low backache or back pressure
- Intestinal cramping or diarrhea
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Watery fluid, pinkish or brownish discharge, or blood coming from the vagina
If you experience any of these symptoms or more than four contractions in an hour, call your health care provider immediately. You may be asked to come in to be checked, or your provider may want you to time your contractions. You can feel the contractions (your uterus tightening and relaxing) by placing your fingertips lightly on your abdomen.
Stopping Preterm Labor
If you begin preterm labor, your healthcare provider will suggest ways to stop it, such as bed rest and drinking lots of fluids.
If the contractions continue, you may be admitted to the hospital so your provider can monitor you more closely.
Preventing Preterm Labor
You can also take precautions that may help prevent preterm labor from starting in the first place.
- Drink eight ounces of juice or water every couple of hours to prevent dehydration, which could make your uterus more "irritable."
- Eat a healthy diet and gain between 25 to 35 pounds during your pregnancy
- Always wipe from front to back after urinating or having a bowel movement, to prevent a UTI.
- Sit down with your legs elevated every hour or so, and don't lift heavy objects.
- Stop physical activity and rest if you experience contractions that don't stop within a short time.
- Try to decrease the stress in your life.
The possibility of preterm labor is scary, but most women experience only Braxton-Hicks contractions.
Take good care of yourself and be sure to contact your health care provider should anything unusual develop.