Braxton Hicks vs contractions

Pregnant mum sitting up in bed holding tummy

When you’re achingly close to meeting your little one, every little twinge makes your heart leap. Your tummy suddenly feels super tight – surely that’s a contraction? Or is it Braxton Hicks?

It can be tricky to know if you’re having Braxton Hicks or real contractions, but there are some key ways to spot the difference. It’s all about how intense and how often you’re feeling the surges.

What are Braxton Hicks?

They’re often called practice contractions because Braxton Hicks are exactly that – your uterine muscles practising for the real thing. While they can feel intense, Braxton Hicks don’t actually dilate the cervix. That’s what real contractions do.

If it’s your first baby, it can be confusing – Braxton Hicks can feel like the real thing. Especially if you’re nearly at the finish line and desperate to meet your little peanut! If you’re really not sure, contact your obstetrician or midwife to check you’re not in preterm labour (earlier than 37 weeks pregnant).

What are contractions?

Contractions are the muscles in your uterus tightening and relaxing. This is helping to push your baby down and open your cervix so your baby can be born. Contractions are painful, feel strong and last longer than 30 seconds. They will get stronger, more painful and you’ll get shorter breaks between them.

Brazton Hicks vs Contractions

How can you tell the difference?

The key is to look at frequency and intensity.

Birth educator Stacey Astley-Clark explains that Braxton Hicks are your ‘body’s way of warming up for the main event’. “They aren’t usually painful and feel more like a ‘tightening’ sensation or a mild cramp. If you touch your belly during a Braxton Hicks, it can feel quite hard.

“Unlike real labour, Braxton Hicks come and go without establishing a pattern or getting any stronger. However, it’s not uncommon for early labour to feel like Braxton Hicks, so if they start feeling more intense and are coming every 30 minutes or more then baby may well be on its way!”

The biggest difference is that Braxton Hicks will eventually disappear. They should only last for a short time and won’t ramp up in intensity.

Where do you feel Braxton Hicks?

Braxton Hicks feel different to contractions, but it can be hard to tell the difference when it’s your first baby.

Specialist obstetrician Dr Gary Sykes says they are usually felt in one area of the uterus.

“The closer a woman is to her delivery date, the more she may be aware of overall uterus hardening. Braxton Hicks contractions are often associated with considerable anxiety, as the pregnant woman is concerned that she may be going into preterm labour.”

What if I can’t tell if it’s Braxton Hicks or labour?

Dr Sykes says, “Just because you are coping with contractions at home you must not assume they are false labour pains. If the whole of the uterus is contracting or the contractions are becoming stronger or more frequent (especially if they are every two to three minutes) you must give the Birth Unit a call and make your way to the hospital.

“If you notice a ‘show’ associated with the contractions, give the Birth Unit a call and tell the
midwife. The midwife can give you advice, and if he/she is concerned, you may be asked to
come in for further monitoring.”

We asked the members of our Facebook due date pregnancy groups to tell us their experiences with Braxton Hicks, and this is what they said …

“Started at 20 weeks and I’m now 35 weeks. I get them all the time, most physical exertion (even mild, like walking) brings them on. I’ve had days where I have them for 30-60 seconds with a 3-minute break in between for a number of hours. I’ve always found them uncomfortable, but I’ve either adjusted somewhat or they’re slightly less uncomfortable now.” Belinda

“With my two girls I got them a lot from 37 weeks, this time around started at about 25 weeks and I’m getting more and more and I’m 32 weeks.” – Cristy

“When I get Braxton Hicks my uterus gets really hard and my it feels like all the blood in my body has rushed to my head. It’s not painful as such but I am most aware of the throbbing in my head.”Ako

“I am 36 and a half weeks but mine started early this time – this is my second time around. Around that time especially when I was at work and getting stressed out in particular.”Chevelle

 How can I ease Braxton Hicks symptoms?

Once you’re certain you’re not in labour, there are a couple of things you can try to ease the discomfort of Braxton Hicks. Midwife Edwina Sharrock from Birth Beat suggested:

  • If you’re walking around, try lying down, often they will subside and vice versa.
  • Make sure you drink plenty of water because the uterus is a big ball of muscle, and when you are dehydrated the muscles can spasm.
  • Remember to have a wee! Yes, it’s that simple. Often a full bladder can lead to Braxton Hicks contractions. So jump up and have a pee.

You can also try taking a warm bath or having a massage – if nothing else you’ll feel relaxed!

Difference between Braxton Hicks and contractions

Take a look at this clever video if want to see a great visual demonstration of how Braxton Hicks are different to real contractions.

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