Braxton Hicks Contractions: Practice for Labor

Braxton Hicks Contractions

Pregnancy can be confusing enough without your body throwing what seems like false signals at you. You feel your uterus cramping and that makes you start to worry that you are going into labor too early. But nope, that cramp just went away and wasn’t followed by another one. You are not going into labor. It is something called a Braxton Hicks contraction. Your body is just prepping for the main event, labor and delivery.

What is happening is that the muscular walls of your uterus are periodically tightening and contracting. Most doctors and health professionals believe that Braxton Hicks contractions are your body’s way of practicing for the big uterine contractions you will need when you deliver your baby. Other names for Braxton Hicks contractions are prodromal labor or false labor.

Braxton Hicks contractions can happen as early as the first trimester, but usually start in the third trimester. You may not even notice your first few Braxton Hicks contractions because they may be very mild. They can feel like a tightening across your abdomen and are not usually painful. The further along in your pregnancy you are, the more noticeable these contractions become. Often they are more intense and uncomfortable in a second or third pregnancy than they are in a first pregnancy. On the other hand, many women never feel (or perhaps do not notice) Braxton Hicks contractions.

False or True?
So how can you tell the practice contractions from the this-is-for-real ones?

Braxton Hicks contractions occur irregularly and infrequently. They have no rhythm and do not increase in their intensity. After half a minute or so, this type of contraction eases off and does not recur. Some women have Braxton Hicks contractions that last for up to two minutes but most last under a minute. They usually ease off if you change position. There is no discharge associated with a Braxton Hicks contraction.

Real labor contractions are strong, long, and recur within a few minutes. They will last about a minute each and don’t ease up if you change position or stand up and walk around. Real labor pains recur and those recurrences will start to come on quicker. You may feel the pain or discomfort in your abdomen, your pelvis, and/or your back.  You may have a discharge with a bit of blood in it if you are really in labor.

If you are not sure whether you are having a Braxton Hicks contraction or if you are really in labor, call your obstetrician or midwife. Definitely call if the contractions start to recur and if you have any discharge or leaking from your vagina.

So, Who Were Braxton and Hicks?
MosBraxton-Hicks-John-1872t medical terms that carry two names are named for the two people who first described the condition or discovered it. Not so with Braxton Hicks contractions. They are named for just one man, a British obstetrician with a double-barreled (but not hyphenated) name: John Braxton Hicks. He described the contractions that were not true labor in 1872 and described some of the ways that they differ from true labor. His studies have helped women and their healthcare providers ever since.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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