What are Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions can begin around six weeks of pregnancy, but most women don’t notice them that early. These are “practice contractions”–that is, they prepare the body for the act of labor and delivery without you actually being in labor. Usually, you won’t even notice them until after the middle of your pregnancy, and some women never really notice them at all. They get their name from John Braxton Hicks, an English doctor who first described them in 1872.
Typically, even if you do notice Braxton Hicks contractions, they’ll be infrequent, irregular, and typically painless. Most women, if they feel them at all, will notice a “tight” feeling in the uterus or that their belly feels harder than normal. As the pregnancy progresses, however, most women experience Braxton Hicks contractions more frequently. In the last few weeks, it can be difficult to distinguish these contractions from preterm labor, making it critical that you pay attention to your body and stay in regular contact with your doctor. You should never try to make this diagnosis yourself! If you’re still less than 37 weeks pregnant and you’re having more than four contractions in an hour — or you have any other signs of preterm labor (see below) — it’s important to contact your doctor or midwife immediately.
Later in your pregnancy, typically within a couple of weeks of your due date, your body is starting to seriously prepare to deliver your baby. Your cervix has begun to soften, or “ripen,” and Braxton Hicks contracts have increased in intensity and more common. In later pregnancy, these contractions may be more productive as they help thin out your cervix (or cause it to efface) and increase dilation (opening). This state is often referred to as pre-labor.
What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?
Contractions are generally described as a tightening or squeezing. Braxton Hicks contractions come at irregular intervals. Typically, they don’t hurt, but at times, they may feel very intense and even cause some pain.
How can I tell the difference between Braxton Hicks and true labor contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions can become very regular, especially in later pregnancy. If they are close together, you may wonder if this is true labor. Unlike true labor, however, Braxton Hicks contractions don’t get longer, stronger, and closer together, and they will eventually stop.
What can I do if my Braxton Hicks contractions are uncomfortable or painful?
If you’re within a few weeks of your due date, try these measures:
• Change your current position. If you’re lying down, get up and walk around. IF you’ve been moving a great deal, lie down, rest on your left side, and drink some water. If you’re in true labor, your contractions will continue no matter what.
• Take a warm bath or shower to help your body relax.
• Try drinking eight to sixteen ounces of water to make sure the contractions haven’t been caused by dehydration.
• Try relaxation exercises or slow, deep breathing. Practice your breathing and relaxation exercises learned in childbirth class. It won’t stop the contractions, but it can make it easier for you to manage the discomfort.
When should I call my doctor or midwife?
If your contractions become steadily stronger and you’ve having more than four per hour, and you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant, you should call your doctor or midwife. Other signs of preterm labor may include:
• Any change in vaginal discharge, especially if it’s mucousy or bloody.
• More pressure in the pelvic area (a feeling that your baby’s pushing down)
• Low back pain that comes and goes, or a sudden onset of lower back pain.
Once you’ve passed the 37-week mark, there’s no need to contact your doctor or midwife about contractions until they last around 60 seconds each and are less than five minutes apart for an hour or more. Of course, you should follow your provider’s instructions: if they want you to call sooner, especially if you have a previous history of fast labors, listen to their advice! You should also call if you have any bleeding or if your water breaks.