Braxton Hicks contractions or real contractions?

Posted in Labour & Delivery and tagged .

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 – are you in labour or are you experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions?

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

What are Braxton Hicks?

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

If it’s your first time being pregnant, it can be confusing – Braxton Hicks contractions may feel like the real thing. Especially if you’re late in your third trimester and desperate to meet your little peanut! It’s hard to know if it’s just a false alarm, especially if it’s you are pregnant for the first time. 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?

Labour 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. Real contractions are painful, increase in frequency, feel strong and last longer than 30 seconds. They will get stronger as they get closer together, giving you shorter breaks between them.

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When do Braxton Hicks start?

Braxton Hicks contractions may start as early as six weeks, but they can’t be felt then. They’re more likely to be felt in the second trimester.

During first pregnancies, Braxton Hicks contractions are usually be felt from around 4 months, but if given birth before, you may feel them sooner because your muscles are not quite as firm as the first time around.

And don’t worry if you don’t get Braxton Hicks contractions at all – not everyone does.

How can you tell the difference between them?

The key is to look at frequency, duration and intensity.

Comparison Table showing the differences between a braxton hick and a real contraction

Birth educator Stacey Astley-Clark explains that Braxton Hicks contractions usually indicate your ‘body is 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 contractions usually 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 these contractions will eventually disappear and won’t increase in frequency. They should only last for a short time and won’t ramp up in intensity.

What do Braxton Hicks feel like?

Braxton Hicks contractions feel uncomfortable and tight, starting at the top of the belly and travelling downward. Many women feel some abdominal pain similar to mild period cramps, but the main thing to remember is that, unlike real contractions, they won’t get stronger or more intense over time. However, they may feel more intense if it’s not your first pregnancy.

Are Braxton Hicks painful?

Rather than being painful, Braxton Hicks contractions feel uncomfortable. They make the belly feel very tight in one certain area, and then release. Sometimes the tightening of the belly can go hand in hand with a bit of an ache, similar to period pain.

If you are experiencing severe pain with Braxton Hicks contractions, call your doctor.

Where do you feel Braxton Hicks?

Braxton Hicks contractions feel different to real contractions, but it can be hard to tell the difference when it’s your first pregnancy. Specialist obstetrician Dr Gary Sykes says they are usually felt in one particular area.

“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 real 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.”

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We asked the members of our Facebook due date pregnancy groups to tell us their experiences with Braxton Hicks contractions, 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 in the third trimester, 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 contractions my tummy 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

Why am I having so many Braxton Hicks?

There are some triggers that appear to bring on Braxton Hicks, even though their exact cause isn’t really known to obstetricians and gynecologists. It’s believed stress may be a cause of Braxton Hicks contractions, as well as dehydration, being on your feet too much, sex or even having a full bladder.

How can I ease the symptoms?

Once you’re certain you’re not in labour, there are a couple of things you can try to ease any abdominal pain or discomfort caused by Braxton Hicks contractions. 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.
  • Change position and see if this helps relax the muscles.

Many women like to take a warm bath or have a massage to ease discomfort – if nothing else you’ll feel relaxed!

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

When to be concerned

If you haven’t made it to 37 weeks and experience any of these, call your doctor or midwife for some trustworthy health information, as it could be a sign of preterm labour:

  • The contractions are at regular intervals or get closer together
  • There’s abdominal pain, vaginal bleeding, vaginal discharge
  • Increasing pain in the lower back or pelvic pressure
  • More than four contractions in an hour

If you’re not sure whether you’re having Braxton Hicks contractions or real contractions, seek medical advice from a doctor.

Find more support in our groups

Looking for more information about Braxton Hicks contractions or other pregnancy symptoms? Join one of our Facebook groups and ask other mums for advice. They are grouped together by baby’s birth/due date so everyone is going through the same stages at the same time.

Click Mum’s Grapevine Facebook Groups and find your group today!

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