What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

How to tell if it's real or "false" labor.
When you’re pregnant, any slight twinge or twitch can make you feel anxious or uncertain.

Sometimes, they might even make you think that baby is on his or her way!

Sound familiar? It’s possible that you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions.

What are they?

Braxton Hicks are probably best described as ‘practice’ contractions as your body nears the end of your pregnancy. They’re your body’s way of ‘getting ready’ for you to have your baby!

What do they feel like?

Women generally describe these ‘practice contractions’ as a tightening of their uterus.  You may liken them to relatively strong period pains or may even feel your bump go quite firm and hard to touch.

You may feel your uterine muscles first tighten at the top before the sensation moves downwards.

Are they painful?

The sudden nature of Braxton Hicks can mean they come quite unexpectedly and may take you by surprise!

They certainly did for me (and my class of 30 children!) when they made me grab my tummy and have a sharp intake of breath mid-maths lesson!  I think the little tykes were expecting a bit of drama to unfold!

But actually, what I was experiencing were just Braxton Hicks and they had to wait another three weeks for the arrival of my litte boy.

What I felt was more of a tightening twinge of discomfort rather than feeling painful. My lower tummy became tight and was hard to the touch.

Why do they happen?

Put simply: your body is preparing to welcome your little one into the world!

Pregnancy hormones begin sending messages to your body to slowly begin the process of childbirth.

This is why the sensations are sometimes referred to as ‘false labor.’

These weaker tightening sensations allow the body to prepare for the stronger contractions of labor.

The American Pregnancy Association   also point out that some doctors  believe Braxton Hicks help to tone the uterine muscle and promote the flow of blood to the placenta.

When can I expect them?

Babycentre  explain how you may feel Braxton Hicks contractions as early as 16 weeks, during your second trimester.

However, you are more likely to experience them in the third trimester of your pregnancy.

Throughout your pregnancy (from about 7 weeks) your uterus will have been contracting gently and it is likely you haven’t even noticed it! It’s only as the uterus grows bigger that you notice the tightening sensations.

How long do they last?

Every woman is different, but generally each  tightening lasts around 30 seconds (sometimes as little as 15 seconds or as long as 2 minutes).  Some women feel them a few times in an hour, whilst others are not even aware of them at all.

I personally only noticed them about two or three times within the last three weeks of my pregnancy.

The frequency of the tightenings is one way of distinguishing Braxton Hicks from labor contractions.

Whattoexpect.com points out that the strength and frequency of Braxton Hicks increases as the pregnancy progresses.

Does everyone experience them?

Not at all! As with all things ‘pregnancy,’ one woman’s experience may be very different to another’s!

Especially if you are expecting your first baby, you may not even be aware of Braxton Hicks. Second or third time mothers may be a little more sensitive to the sensations.

However, if you do experience them with a first pregnancy, it’s nothing to worry about!

Can anything trigger Braxton Hicks?

Generally speaking, these sensations are triggered by the natural progression of your pregnancy as you near labor.

However, it is possible that they might also be brought on by:

  • A full bladder.
  • Dehydration (I forced myself to carry a bottle of water everywhere I went during my pregnancy!)
  • Sexual intercourse.
  • If mother and/or baby are very active.

Are they anything to worry about?

Not at all. Braxton Hicks are a completely normal part of pregnancy.

However, as with anything regarding your pregnancy, if you have any concerns at all, don’t hesitate to contact your health professional.

When should I call my doctor?

Although Braxton Hicks are totally normal, there may be certain times when you should seek medical advice:

  • If the pain becomes more intense than you are comfortable with
  • If you experience any bleeding or a bloody show.
  • If you experience strangely coloured vaginal discharge (NHS).
  • If you experience more than four tightening sensations in an hour (to rule out the ris of real labor).

It is especially important to contact your doctor with any of the above if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant as you may be at risk or preterm labor. 

How are they different to labor?

There are certain key differences between Braxton Hicks and labor contractions:

  • Braxton Hicks are generally infrequent without any consistent timings.
  • Labor contractions are more regular. You can time them to the point that you will be able to predict when the next will happen.
  • Braxton Hicks are relatively painless, although you may feel a slight discomfort.
  • Labor contractions build in intensity as labor progresses, which is why pain relief may be needed.
  • Braxton Hicks are shorter, lasting around 30 seconds each.
  • Labor contractions build up to last longer, between 30-70 seconds.
  • Braxton Hicks can generally be relieved by gently and slowly changing position.
  • Labor contractions do not disappear as easily although you may find that you are more comfortable or the pain less intense if you take up certain positions. 

Can I do anything about Braxton Hicks?

On the whole, Braxton Hicks should not be so uncomfortable that they are unbearable.

However, if you do find that you are in discomfort, the American Pregnancy Association has some pointers:

  • Enjoy a warm drink or a glass of water (in case of dehydration)
  • Take a warm bath for up to 30 minutes   (Make sure to check that the temperature is safe during pregnancy)
  • Change your position (from sitting to standing or vice versa).
  • Take a short, gentle walk.

Will I know when I’m in labor?

When reading about Braxton Hicks, many women worry that they won’t be able to tell if what they’re feeling is ‘false’ labor or the real deal!

Yet when it comes down to it, you will almost certainly be able to tell when your real labor has begun! There was certainly no doubt in my mind!

Just remember, if the tightening sensations go away on their own, the likelihood is that they are just Braxton Hicks.

Your health professional is always only a phone call away, and it’s always better to put your mind at rest than sit and worry.

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