Braxton Hicks contractions: how can I be sure they're not the real thing?
Braxton Hicks are your body’s way of preparing for labour but what’s the difference between these practice contractions and the real thing, when do they start and does everyone get them?
Braxton Hicks are a tightening of the muscles in your uterus and they are completely normal. All pregnant women get them but not all mums-to-be will feel them, so there’s really no need to panic if your pregnancy is hick-free.
Around the middle of your pregnancy you might notice a tightening feeling across your bump; put your hand on your belly and it might feel like rock!
Midwife Anne Richey says, “The tightenings will feel similar to having your blood pressure taken. You’ll probably feel discomfort but you should not feel pain”.
You might get a one or two Braxton Hicks in an hour, or maybe few a day and they usually last around half a minute. The further along you are in your pregnancy and the bigger your uterus gets, the more you'll notice them. What’s more, they’ll probably be more intense.
One of mum chatting on our forum said, "I have been getting them too, and it can be quite painful. The advice I have been given is that they shouldn't last longer than 30 seconds, and shouldn't be regular (like every x minutes)." - nickiandneil
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And another said, "When I was pregnant last time I got them and they weren't sore my belly just used to go rock hard for a min or so." - annem1982
What do they do?
Braxton Hicks are thought to do a couple of things. One theory is that they increase blood flow to the uterus and placenta, and help deliver oxygen to the foetus. They’re also probably a way of preparing your uterus and cervix for labour.
Anne Richey explains, “Like many things in pregnancy, we’re not entirely sure why they happen, or why some people get them and others don’t”. She adds, “If you don’t get them it doesn’t mean that your baby isn’t getting enough oxygen, or that your body isn’t preparing for birth”.
When will I feel them?
You won’t have noticed it but your uterus has been gently contracting since you were around seven weeks pregnant. Really!
Your first Braxton Hick might come at about 16 weeks, although most women say they’re around the 20-25 weeks stage when they feel one and there’s no hard and fast rule though as mums on the MFM forum reveal…
"My memory is that they can start earlier than you're warned to expect them - scared me silly first time round!" - daska
Is this like labour?
Braxton Hicks are not a sign that you’re going into labour. In fact, they’re quite different from contractions and if you know the signs you should be able to tell them apart.
The key to understanding the difference, says Anne is the frequency and intensity. “Braxton Hicks don’t get stronger, longer, or more frequent but labour pains do”.
Some mums-to-be still find it hard to tell the difference, though. "I had Braxton Hicks throughout my pregnancy and when I first started getting proper contractions I couldn't tell the difference until I noticed they were coming regular." - xkelx
- Short (around 30 seconds) and don’t get any longer
- Happen once or twice an hour, or a few times a day
- Don’t form a pattern - they come at random times
- Don’t get more intense
- Stop if you move, or change position
- Last for longer and get more frequent and intense
- Are more regular
- Are painful
- Don’t go away
Should they be painful?
“Braxton Hicks should be painless,” says Anne. Although some people say that they can be pretty uncomfortable, especially towards the end of your pregnancy.
If you do experience cramps, or pain at the same time it’s important that you contact your midwife or doctor immediately - it could be a sign that something else might be happening.
Are they caused by stress?
Anne says, “No. Stress can bring on labour but not Braxton Hicks but tightenings can be brought on by having a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI), or having loose bowels,” she adds.
“And as your baby’s head starts to engage you might notice a few more tightenings and this is completely normal,” she adds.
Other triggers include being active, someone touching your bump, having a full bladder, being dehydrated or following sex.
How can I ease them?
Try to relax, and breathe deeply. Maybe practice the breathing exercises you’ve been taught at your antenatal classes. Some people say taking a warm bath, or using a hot water bottle makes things more comfortable.
Changing your position can also help - if you’re sitting stand up, or if you’re standing grab the opportunity to sit down and chill out. If you’re really uncomfortable maybe take a paracetamol tablet - it should do the trick.
"I had these when I was 26wks pregnant and they were every 2-3 mins and lasted 3 hours and it was going in to my back and making me want to go to the loo, in my pregnancy book it said it could be early labour.
"I phoned the hospital up and the mw said to take a few painkillers and if they hadn't gone in a few hours to call them back as i was high risk due to having twins, they did stop thank god, keep an eye on them and if they are reg' then take some tabs to see if it eases, if not ring the hospital." - fall3n-ang3l
Should I go to hospital?
Probably not if you want to avoid the slightly embarrassing situation of being told you’re not in labour.
“Braxton Hicks are a completely normal part of pregnancy and you really don’t need medical attention,” says Anne. Even celebs experience them; when she was pregnant with baby Bobby, Kimberley Walsh told OK! Magazine "...They're not painful at all, though – my stomach just goes rock hard for a bit".
But they’re getting worse and they hurt
If you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and you’re having frequent, regular tightenings that are getting more intense you could be going into premature labour and you should contact your doctor or midwife straight away.
If you’re over the 37-week mark and you’re having
- Lower back pain
- Upset tummy
- Brownish or blood-tinged mucus discharge (bloody show)
- You pass your mucus plug
- Disrupted sleep
- You’re very emotional
You could be in pre-labour - the phase before active labour when your body is preparing for the birth.
Do they get worse with each pregnancy?
Some mums say that they do, although others say that they’ve had them in one pregnancy but not in the later pregnancies, and there are variations in when they start with each pregnancy, too.
"With baby no 3 I had them from about 25 weeks and from 30 wks, false labour every 3 days for 6 hrs at a time (certainly don't wish that on any of u, it's not fun at all!).
"This time, I felt mild tightenings at least once a week from about 10 weeks!!! Now of course, at 25 days to go, they are a regular daily occurance and I totally agree, driving and BH are def not compatible!!!!!" - Mummyx5
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