What are Braxton-Hicks contractions?
Also known as false labor or practice contractions, Braxton-Hicks are unpredictable, sporadic, infrequent and non-rhythmic uterine contractions that can start as early as 6 weeks of pregnancy, but you will not feel them at that stage. They were named after British gynecologist John Braxton-Hicks who first identified them in 1872.
There is some debate as to the purpose for these contractions, with some researchers defending that it helps tone uterine muscle and improve blood flow to the placenta, while others suggest that they promote softening of the cervix in preparation for labor.
With your first pregnancy, most likely you’ll start feeling them in mid to late pregnancy, but earlier with second and subsequent pregnancies. Some women may not feel any contractions at all, while others will have them frequently. These contractions can occur about every 10-20 minutes, lasting around 30-60 seconds. Towards the end of your pregnancy, contractions occur more often but remain irregular and painless. Importantly, if you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and start experiencing regular contractions (more than 4 contractions per hour), contact your healthcare provider immediately, as you may be going into preterm labor.
When you reach the final weeks in your pregnancy, these contractions get increasingly more frequent and may cause some discomfort or even become painful. At this stage, your cervix has started to soften to prepare for labor. In contrast to earlier contractions, these actually contribute to effacing and dilating your cervix, which are changes essential during labor.
If they get too painful or uncomfortable, try a warm bath or slow deep breathing to relax your body and help you cope better with the discomfort. Sometimes, simply drinking a glass of water can stop these contractions, as they may be caused by dehydration.
How do they differ from true labor contractions?
Especially towards the end of your pregnancy, you may begin to wonder if you’ll be able to differentiate between Braxton-Hicks and true labor contractions. In fact, Braxton-Hicks may become regular and slightly painful, but true labor contractions get increasingly more frequent, stronger and closer together. Another aspect of Braxton-Hicks contractions is that they may stop if you change position, which will not happen with labor contractions.
When should I call my doctor or midwife?
Braxton-Hicks contractions are perfectly normal and will not affect your baby’s development in any way. However, if you experience regular contractions before you’re 37 weeks pregnant, even if they’re not painful, you should contact your doctor. Other signs of preterm labor include constant back or abdominal pain and cramping, bleeding or spotting, mucusy, bloody or watery discharge and pelvic pressure.
After 37 weeks pregnant, unless accompanied by any other sings, you should only call your midwife when you’re experiencing contractions lasting 30-60 seconds about 5 minutes apart. This means you’re no longer having Braxton-Hicks, but true labor contractions.