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Braxton Hicks Contractions: What Are They?

Braxton Hicks Contractions

September 28, 2018
3 min read

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

What's in this article:

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions? What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like? When Can Braxton Hicks Contractions Start? Braxton Hicks vs. True Labor Contractions FAQs at a Glance

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Also known as "false" or "practice" contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions (named after the doctor who first identified them) are not actual labor contractions, but they are caused by the muscles of the uterus tightening, just as real labor 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 labor contractions start. Knowing how long your contractions last and how frequently they occur can help you determine whether you’re experiencing real labor contractions or not. To help keep on top of this, download our guide to tracking your contractions.

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 labor 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.

When 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.

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Braxton Hicks vs. True Labor Contractions

If you notice contractions before your 37th week of pregnancy, you might worry you’re going into preterm labor 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 labor. It also helps to know what Braxton Hicks contractions feel like, and to keep in mind the following differences between Braxton Hicks and true labor contractions:

Braxton Hicks Contractions True Labor 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 labor contractions, consult your healthcare provider. And if you notice any of the following signs of labor, 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

How Long Do Braxton Hicks Last?

Typically, each contraction will last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. The duration of each contraction may vary, but Braxton Hicks contractions differ from true labor contractions in that they do not get stronger or increase in frequency. You may be able to stop these contractions with some gentle movement or a walk, or by simply changing your position.

What Causes Braxton Hicks Contractions?

These sensations are caused by the tightening of the uterine muscles. Braxton Hicks contractions often occur later in the day, and after physical activity; they may occur more frequently when you are tired or dehydrated.

When Am I Really in Labor?

At the first sign of contractions, start timing them. Contractions that come at regular intervals, and that grow closer together over time, may mean you are in true labor. Contact your healthcare provider who will let you know when to grab your hospital bag and be on your way. Another good indication of true labor is when contraction pains start at the back, and gradually radiate around to the front of the body. Other, more visible signs of labor include your water breaking and seeing the mucus plug.

What Are the Most Common Braxton Hicks Symptoms?

You may feel a tightness of the abdomen, accompanied by slight pain or shortness of breath. The main thing to remember with Braxton Hicks contractions is there should be no progression of symptoms — they shouldn't worsen or occur more frequently. But remember that they can become a bit more intense as you approach your due date.

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 labor.

See all sources
All resources

 

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 Contactions

Kid’s Health: Pregnancy Calendar – week 39

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

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

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