Braxton Hicks Contractions
What are Braxton Hicks Contractions?
They are contractions of your uterus – often labelled as ‘false labour’ or practice contractions. They are not false contractions though, as the muscle of the womb is in fact contracting – but in a different way to what occurs in the actual process of labour and giving birth. They prepare the muscle of the uterus for your actual labour by tightening and relaxing it– but they do not cause labour to start and don’t make the cervix dilate. You don’t need to worry though, they are a very normal part of your body preparing for your actual labour and birth.
What are symptoms of Braxton Hicks?
They can make your abdomen tighten and if you put your hand over the uterus when they occur, you will notice that your tummy feels hard or ‘tight’. However, many women have no symptoms at all, and might not even know that they are happening. Sometimes, even in the same woman, different pregnancies can feel very different to each other – so where the Braxton Hicks were infrequent and painless in one pregnancy, they might start earlier in another one and feel quite uncomfortable.
They are not painful, but may feel like mild period cramps from time to time. They are usually irregular and fade over time, lasting usually less than 30 seconds each time. They occur more frequently later in pregnancy though, so if you are in doubt do consult your midwife or doctor1.
What is the difference between Braxton Hicks and labour contractions?
The main difference is that labour contractions become more painful and regular over time, and they do not go away whatever measures you might take to alleviate them.
Braxton Hicks contractions:
- don’t result in your cervix thinning and opening
- usually last for about 30 seconds
- can be uncomfortable, but usually aren’t painful
- come and go at irregular and random times
- usually occur no more than once or twice an hour (until late in the pregnancy), a few times a day
- usually stop if you change position or activity or go for a walk
- usually go if you have a warm bath or shower
- Often go if you drink water or herbal tea (as they can be triggered by being dehydrated)
Real labour contractions:
- result in your cervix thinning and opening
- last 30 to 70 seconds
- become very regular over time
- get closer together
- last longer as time goes by
- get stronger or come more often when you walk
- get more painful over time and can feel like severe period pains
- can be associated with you passing your ‘mucus plug’ from the vagina or your waters breaking
What do Braxton Hicks feel like?
They usually feel like a painless or mildly uncomfortable tightening or hardening of your uterus (womb). They often start at the top of the uterus and travel down, and can last between 30 to 60 seconds. However, they might be only once or twice a day, or several times an hour in later pregnancy. They remain irregular though and should disappear fairly quickly. Some women may not feel them at all, or just notice them very late on in their pregnancy. It’s very variable and perfectly normal to have different experiences to other women or even in your own different pregnancies.
Are Braxton Hicks painful?
Generally speaking they are not painful. Often, they are completely painless and you might notice your tummy becoming hard. If you are over-tired or dehydrated though they may become more frequent and/or uncomfortable. If you note that the tightenings are becoming more painful, prolonged or regular you must call your midwife or doctor for advice – especially if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant or you have any other symptoms such as constant pain, vaginal bleeding or reduced movement frequency of your baby.
How long do Braxton Hicks last?
They usually tend to last between 30-60 seconds, but sometimes be shorter, not usually longer. They generally occur randomly and it is uncommon for them to last over an hour, normally they last just a few minutes.
Am I experiencing Braxton Hicks at 32 weeks pregnant?
It’s perfectly normal to feel them at this stage of pregnancy, or indeed at any time in the third trimester. They actually start much earlier in pregnancy (even in the first trimester), but most women don’t start to feel them until after 20 weeks or so2.
Why am I having so many Braxton Hicks contractions?
Common triggers for Braxton Hicks Contractions are:
- over exertion – such as heavy lifting or exercise or long walks
- your baby being particularly active
- having sex
- someone touching your bump
- sitting or standing in the same position for a prolonged period of time
- a very full bladder
The best way to help them settle is to rehydrate yourself with water, have a rest or warm bath for 30 minutes, or change position or walk if you have been sitting for a long time. And go to the toilet to pass water if your bladder feels full.
How early can you get Braxton Hicks?
They can actually start as early as the first trimester, but it is unusual to feel them before 16 weeks in to the pregnancy. Most women start to feel them after 20 weeks, and some women don’t feel them at all!
How to cope with Braxton Hicks at night
Going to the bathroom to empty your bladder and have plenty of water to drink and a walk around should help them settle. If they persist for over an hour or become increasingly painful and/or regular you should call the hospital for advice – especially if you are under 37 weeks pregnant or have any vaginal fluid leaking or concerns about your baby’s movements
How to cope with Braxton Hicks and back pain
It’s unusual for Braxton Hicks contractions to be associated with backache. This would be more common if you are actually in labour – so the recommendation is to seek advice, especially if you are not beyond 37 weeks. Some women do feel Braxton Hicks early in pregnancy, and they also have unrelated backache. If your midwife feels that the Braxton Hicks are not concerning then you should see a physiotherapist to assess your back and advise on measures to help. Also keep a mental note of different activities that might trigger either the Braxton Hicks or the backache so that you can try to avoid them
Dr Shazia Malik
Dr Shazia Malik is a highly experienced consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist. She gained her medical degree with Honours and the Gold Medal in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1991. Since then, she has trained in Obstetrics in some of the largest tertiary level units in the country. She undertook her specialist training in Cambridge where she was also a research fellow funded by the MRC working with a world famous team looking at abnormal vessel function in women with excessively heavy periods or endometriosis.
- National Health Service (NHS). The Latent Phase of Labour [online] 2012. Available at https://www.uhcw.nhs.uk/clientfiles/files/latent_phase_of_labour_UHCW_patient_information.pdf Accessed November 2021.
- Raines DA, Cooper DB. Braxton Hicks Contractions. [Updated 2021 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470546/
Last reviewed: 16th Dec 2021
Reviewed By: Dr Shazia Malik
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