Pregnancy brings on a plethora of emotions for expectant parents. The experience is overwhelming in more ways than we can count. Expectant parents, and particularly moms, are welcomed into a world of joy, elation, anticipation, stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion. Any woman who has been through a pregnancy can attest to the fact that it requires many life changes and much education, but even for the most rigorous of students, it’s tough to have it all figured out.
There is literally so much to learn about when trying to navigate a pregnancy as well as sorting out how to care for a newborn soon to be thrust into the world. And to top it off, that baby has to come through where? There is likely nothing as daunting when it comes to pregnancy as the actual thought of squeezing that watermelon through those precious lady parts. It seems unfathomable. But before we even get to the pushing part, women wonder how they will actually even know when that time has come.
Braxton Hicks contractions are a reality of pregnancy that can be very confusing to expectant moms. It’s undoubtedly a term that most hear at some point during pregnancy but what the heck are they? What is their purpose? And does everyone experience them? These are just some of the questions that arise when the term Braxton Hicks is thrown around.
So, what exactly are Braxton Hicks contractions all about? Here we answer 15 questions associated with Braxton Hicks contractions that have crossed the minds of most expectant moms.
15 What Are They?
Braxton Hicks contractions are fondly called “practice” contractions. When they occur, it’s nature’s way of helping an expectant woman’s body gear up for the big day. They are sort of like the dress rehearsal before the big performance.
It’s important to understand that Braxton Hicks contractions are in fact contractions. The uterus is contracting and tightening as a way to prepare it for the actual birth of the baby. The important distinction is that Braxton Hicks contractions are not labor contractions so their occurrence doesn’t mean the birth of the baby is imminent. They are much gentler than labor contractions and are generally not thought to play a role in dilating the cervix or pushing the baby out.
Having said all that, these contractions can still be uncomfortable for expectant moms and even painful at times. While they are not real contractions per se, they are also not always easy to dismiss.
14 When Do They Start?
Believe it or not, Braxton Hicks contractions can start as early as 6 weeks into a pregnancy but at that point, they are often too subtle for expectant women to notice.
Even though most women don’t notice them until later in pregnancy, the practice of preparing the uterine muscles, and mom, for labor occurs much earlier in pregnancy. The bigger the uterus gets, the more likely women are to notice these contractions, which is why they can’t be felt at their earliest onset.
In general, Braxton Hicks contractions get stronger as pregnancy progresses. Women are most likely to feel them about halfway through their pregnancy with the intensity increasing as the due date approaches. As such, they will be most noticeable in the last trimester.
13 Are There Triggers?
There are, in fact, some common triggers to Braxton Hicks contractions. That said, it’s important to remember that everyone is different, so what might be a trigger to one expectant mom may not be for another. As an example, some women report being awoken by Braxton Hicks contractions while others notice they began during prenatal aerobics classes.
Regardless of personal triggers, if someone is experiencing frequent (and annoying) Braxton Hicks contractions, being mindful of common triggers can be helpful. The most common triggers of Braxton Hicks contractions are as follows:
- Mom’s activity levels
- Very active baby
- Outside touch on mom’s bump
- Sexual intercourse
- A full bladder
Most of these triggers are easily controlled, so that’s good news. It’s helpful to monitor what was going on when the contractions started, so if nothing else, one can prepare for next time.
12 How Do They Differ from Labor?
The main difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and true labor contractions is that Braxton Hicks are irregular and less intense. This can be particularly confusing for a first-time mom who hasn’t experienced proper labor contractions before as she doesn’t have that extreme intensity to compare to. We can assure you that contractions associated with labor are quite unmistakable.
Hallmarks of Braxton Hicks include their irregularity, their lack of intensity, and the fact that they will often subside considerably with a change in position or by engaging in some light activity like walking around. Over time Braxton Hicks contractions will not get stronger or come closer together and each subsequent contraction won’t last any longer than the previous one.
By contrast, labor contractions are regular, come sooner over time, and get much more intense with the passage of time. It’s these contractions that are literally pushing the baby out so one can only imagine how intense they need to be.
A woman should call the doctor or midwife immediately if her water breaks or when contractions last for up to a minute long and come evenly at about five minutes apart. If this persists for an hour without stopping, it’s time to head to the hospital. These are most likely not Braxton Hicks contractions.
11 What Do They Feel Like?
Braxton Hicks contractions occur when the uterine muscles flex and contract. These contractions aren’t strong enough to push the baby out, but they are often strong enough for an expectant woman to feel them.
They generally start out to be fairly painless. They are most likely to be recognized as a tightening sensation that progresses from the top of the uterine muscles and extends downwards. The abdomen becomes very hard and sometimes takes on a pointy shape.
Some women describe them as strong menstrual cramps while others experience them with greater intensity. Either way, they can be very uncomfortable. They may last anywhere between 30 seconds and two minutes.
10 Do They Affect the Baby?
The short answer to this question is “yes” but not in any negative or uncomfortable way. The baby may be aware of the sensation of tightening in his/her enclosure but remember these aren’t real contractions, so they aren’t doing any heavy duty work to move the baby along.
It will also depend on how far along an expectant woman is. The bigger the uterus is, the more intense the Braxton Hicks contractions will be but this also means that the baby is bigger. There is a greater chance the fetus will be aware of the tightening the bigger he/she is, but again not in such a way as to cause the baby any discomfort.
Further, because it is speculated that these practice contractions actually work to squeeze more blood into the placenta, the fetus is actually getting extra nutrients as a result of them.
9 Can They Be Alleviated?
Another piece of good news about Braxton Hicks contractions is that they can be alleviated. In fact, this is one great way to distinguish them from actual labor contractions. The latter cannot be alleviated and will only get worse as labor progresses.
To alleviate Braxton Hicks contractions, try the following strategies:
- Change positions or try some light activity. Many women report that walking can provide relief, or even moving from a horizontal position to a seated position also works for some.
- Try soaking in a warm bath. This can help to relax muscles and also to take one’s mind off the discomfort.
- Drink some water. As we mentioned, dehydration can be a factor in Braxton Hicks contractions, so water is obviously a natural remedy.
- Try other ways to relax like deep breathing, yoga, or ask hubby to provide a massage.
Another great way to get through pesky Braxton Hicks contractions is to practice labor breathing. Since they are practice contractions, one might as well get into the spirit of things and practice those breathing lessons from prenatal classes.
8 What’s Their Purpose?
As mentioned, Braxton Hicks contractions help to prepare the body for actual labor but it’s more than just mental practice for mom. These contractions are thought to help by keeping the uterus and abdominal muscles well-toned in preparation for real labor and delivery. Some women actually complain that they feel as though they’ve had a workout after experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions and there is a good reason why.
As we mentioned earlier, they are not thought to contribute to dilating and opening the cervix. That said, some experts suggest that they do play a role in helping to prepare the cervix for the big day by helping to soften and thin it in order for the baby to pass through. Normally the cervix is a hard round structure and in order for it to dilate, it must soften and thin considerably. Cue Braxton Hicks contractions as a starting point.
The actual cause of these contractions is… hormones! No surprise there. Hormones send messages to the body to start the process of preparing for childbirth. It has also been postulated that these contractions help to push more blood into the placenta to nurture the fetus.
7 Why Are They Called Braxton Hicks?
Most expectant women have heard the term Braxton Hicks contractions and many accept the term without really thinking about how this name arose. Well, Braxton Hicks contractions are named after the doctor who first discovered them--John Braxton Hicks. This discovery took place all the way back in 1872, so the contractions bearing his name are not some new or passing fad!
Braxton Hicks himself was an English doctor who specializes in obstetrics. Aside from being well-known for discovering and naming these “practice” contractions, he also rose to distinction for being the first doctor to describe a bipolar version of the fetus. Say what? This is, in fact, a method for changing the position of a fetus by placing one hand on mom’s abdomen and inserting two fingers of the other hand into the vagina.
6 Does Everybody Have Them?
Everybody has Braxton Hicks contractions but not everybody feels them. Whether a woman feels them or not can depend on a number of factors.
Firstly, because some don’t find them painful, they may not assume that any sensation they are feeling is akin to a contraction. Secondly, it can also depend on how active a person is. If a woman is generally distracted when Braxton Hicks contractions hit, she’ll be less likely to notice.
Thirdly, some women only notice them if they actually touch their bellies and feel the tightening in the abdomen but never feel any discomfort from within. Body shape, fitness levels, and size may also play a role
So, don’t panic if you do feel them or if you don’t feel them. It’s all within normal.
5 Will I Feel Them During Every Pregnancy?
The answer to this question is not necessarily. Some theories suggest women are more likely to feel Braxton Hicks contractions on subsequent pregnancies. This may be because by the time a second pregnancy rolls around, a woman knows what a real contraction feels like so she is better able to identify a Braxton Hicks Contraction.
Then again, there are oodles of reports from women who say they felt them with some pregnancies and not others, so the order of pregnancy is obviously not the only factor. One woman we spoke to only felt them on her third pregnancy and made two trips to the hospital as a result of these practice contractions. This just goes to show experience isn’t everything.
Each situation will be unique so again don’t panic if you do feel them or if you don’t feel them on subsequent pregnancies. It’s all within normal and there is no rule of thumb per se.
4 Are Braxton Hicks the Same as False Labor?
False labor occurs when Braxton Hicks contractions become more frequent and intense as a woman’s due date approaches. This is when Braxton Hicks contractions are most troubling and confusing because they feel different in intensity than they did before and the due date is so close! Could it be time?
Well, the answer to this question is that it could be time but the same approaches to alleviate Braxton Hicks contractions throughout pregnancy can work during false labor as well. Oftentimes, false labor leads to false alarms and hospital visits only so disappointed parents to be sent home again. In fact, sometimes false labor subsides by the time expectant parents get to the hospital parking lot!
In a nutshell, false labor and Braxton Hicks are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably but it is really only considered false labor if the due date is impending and contractions are mistaken for the real thing.
3 What Happens if I Go to the Hospital?
Lots of expectant women make trips to the delivery ward with false labor. It’s absolutely within a woman’s right to do this and often makes perfect sense. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Don’t feel embarrassed! Many a woman has made that uncertain trek.
The hospital takes visits like these seriously and will treat any pregnant woman like she is in labor. They will provide a full assessment including applying a belt that transmits a signal to a tocodynamometer to assess contractions. This is the best indicator of whether a woman is in fact in labor or not.
Following the assessment, doctors will either admit a mom to the labor and delivery ward or send her home until contractions become regular and more intense. There is no harm in calling the hospital first if someone is thinking about making a trip, as nurses will often talk expectant moms through their symptoms and provide advice.
2 What Symptoms Shouldn’t Be Ignored?
In some cases, whether or not Braxton Hicks contractions are taking place, other symptoms might present themselves that should not be ignored. These include:
- The presence of any kind of low back pain, abdominal cramping, or low abdominal pain.
- More than four Braxton Hicks per hour occur.
- Spotting or bleeding (particularly if pink, red or brown) from the vagina.
- Water or a larger volume of discharge leaking from the vagina (would want to rule out amniotic fluid).
- The pressure in the lower pelvic area or between the legs.
- A visible clump of mucus that is streaked with blood (likely the mucous plug from the cervix).
If an expectant mom is experiencing any of these symptoms she should call her doctor or midwife immediately or head to the delivery ward.
1 What Else Is Mistaken for Contractions?
Mistaking other things for contractions can and does happen. It’s more likely to happen with first-time moms because they aren’t quite sure what to expect or how things are going to feel. Unfortunately, labor isn’t always black and white. It’s often tough to read the signs even for veteran moms. That’s why many women giving birth to subsequent babies wait too long to go to the hospital. It’s not a perfect science.
It’s possible that the annoying and at times painful symptoms being mistaken for labor are actually the following:
- Intestinal upset
- Baby hiccups
- Pressure on cervix as baby drops
- Mild-grade cramping
As we said earlier, if in doubt about symptoms, contact the doctor or midwife. They expect it and would rather rule things out than have expectant moms make any assumptions. After all, everyone is united in the common goal of bringing that future bundle of joy into the world in the safest and most comfortable way possible. Hang in there. It will happen.