Real contractions vs. braxton hicks contractions - Ruth Health

Real contractions vs. braxton hicks contractions

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Fast facts:

  • Not all contractions indicate that the baby’s coming. Braxton Hicks contractions are essentially practice for the uterine muscles.
  • These false labor contractions may develop as early as the 20th week of your pregnancy and often increase in frequency and intensity as your due date approaches.
  • Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and less intense than real labor contractions. 
  • If you are unsure whether you’re experiencing true labor contractions, contact a trusted healthcare professional. You won’t be the first birthing person to gear up for labor after a false alarm.

Contractions are a signal from the body that it’s time for labor and delivery, but sometimes they’re a false alarm. Braxton Hicks contractions, also referred to as false labor contractions, may develop as early as the 20th week of your pregnancy. They’re essentially practice for the uterine muscles, which have a big job to do during a vaginal delivery.

So, what do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like, and how can you differentiate them from real contractions? We cover it all below.

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular uterine contractions caused by pregnancy hormones, helping your body prepare for childbirth. They thin the cervix just like true labor contractions but aren’t powerful enough to deliver a baby.

Many birthing people experience false labor contractions as an uncomfortable tightening in the abdomen. They’re typically 15-30 seconds long but may last up to two minutes in some cases.

These contractions vary in intensity. Some are so mild that they’re not noticeable. Not everyone experiences them, so don’t worry if you’re not feeling anything. The absence of false labor contractions does not indicate a difficult labor or complications.

Some women experience more frequent or more severe Braxton-Hicks contractions during a second pregnancy.

When do Braxton Hicks contractions occur?

Braxton Hicks contractions can start as early as the 20th week of your pregnancy during the second trimester. They often become more noticeable in the third trimester and may increase in frequency or intensity as your due date approaches.

In addition to pregnancy hormones, other physical factors that may contribute to the development of Braxton Hicks contractions include exercise, physical fatigue, sexual activity and orgasm, and dehydration. (Contrary to popular belief, these factors won’t cause early labor, just Braxton Hicks.)

Real contractions vs Braxton Hicks: spotting the difference

While it can be difficult to distinguish real contractions from false labor contractions, there are several key differences to be mindful of:

  • Timing: Braxton Hicks contractions can begin during the second trimester and occur more frequently during the third trimester. True labor contractions develop after the 37th week of your pregnancy, except in preterm labors.
  • Frequency: Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular whereas true labor contractions typically occur two to five minutes apart.
  • Duration: Braxton Hicks contractions often last for 15-30 seconds whereas true labor contractions typically last 60-90 seconds.
  • Sensation: True labor contractions are typically more intense and painful than Braxton Hicks contractions, which may feel like a tightening or squeezing in the abdomen. Additionally, the intensity of a true labor contraction increases like a wave.
  • Response to movement: Braxton Hicks contractions may stop when you stand or walk while true labor contractions will not stop if you move or change your position.

There are additional cues that your body is preparing for delivery, although signs of labor vary significantly from one person to another:

  • Lightening: the settling of your baby’s head in the pelvis, which can temporarily change the shape of your abdomen
  • Bloody show: clear, pink, or slightly bloody vaginal discharge caused by the emptying of a mucus plug at your cervical opening
  • Rupture of the membranes (aka water breaking): the tearing of the amniotic sac

If you are unsure whether you’re experiencing false labor contractions or the real thing, contact a trusted healthcare professional. 

If it turns out to be Braxton Hicks contractions, you definitely won’t be the first birthing person to gear up for labor after a false alarm.

How can I ease the discomfort of false labor contractions?

  • Stay hydrated: Dehydration can contribute to Braxton Hicks contractions, so be sure to get plenty of fluids.
  • Change your position: Moving around can help ease the discomfort of a false labor contraction. See how it feels if you shift from sitting to standing or from walking to resting.
  • Take deep breaths: Think of Braxton Hicks contractions as an opportunity to put all your childbirth preparation to use. Practice breathing exercises or any other relaxation techniques in your toolkit.

What should I do if I experience false labor contractions?

You should always feel comfortable reaching out to a healthcare professional about any discomfort or concerns during pregnancy. That includes if you think you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions.

Never feel bad for heading to your birthing location after false labor contractions. It can be difficult to know if labor has begun, and it is part of any birthing professional’s job to let you know when the baby is coming.

It’s especially important to seek medical care after potential labor contractions if you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant or another labor sign is present, such as your water breaking.

Let’s talk labor and delivery

It’s okay to feel uneasy or nervous as you prepare for labor. Many parents-to-be experience these feelings. In addition to leaning on your loved ones for support, consult trusted providers including your doctor and the Ruth Health team.

Have additional questions about pregnancy, the stages of labor, or postpartum life? Send us an email at hello@ruthhealth.com and we’ll make sure you get the information you need.

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