pregnant women having Braxton Hicks
Louise Broadbridge
Louise Broadbridge

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

The first time you feel your bump tighten, you might think you’ve gone into labour. But before you grab your hospital bag or call your birth partner, take a moment as you might actually be experiencing Braxton Hicks.

Braxton Hicks are sometimes referred to as false labour pains and although they are very real contractions of the uterus, they are not a sign that your baby is on their way. Think of Braxton Hicks as being a rehearsal for the real thing  - they allow your body to prepare for labour.

When you experience Braxton Hicks, you will feel your womb contract and then relax, just as you will in real labour. However, they are not usually painful contractions, although they can feel a little uncomfortable and they will eventually stop.

Unlike labour contractions, Braxton Hicks will not cause your cervix to soften, become thinner and then dilate.

When will I start getting Braxton Hicks?

Not all pregnant women will have Braxton Hicks contractions and it is impossible to know whether you will experience them. Some women will have them quite regularly and they can start in the second trimester from about 20 weeks.

Some medical experts believe your uterus will start having these practice contractions right from six weeks of pregnancy but at this stage, they are so small you will not be able to feel them.

Braxton Hicks can continue right up until you go into labour for real and deliver your baby. 

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

Some people describe Braxton Hicks as feeling a little bit like mild cramps you might experience during your period. You might feel some discomfort, but it shouldn’t be painful and you should feel able to cope with the sensation.

You may feel your bump tightening and becoming hard before returning to normal.

Does anything increase the likelihood of Braxton Hicks?

You are more likely to experience Braxton Hicks after a period of being very active so you might find they come on after a busy day at work or a long walk. They may also start after you have had sex or if you have a very full bladder or are dehydrated.

How can I tell the difference between Braxton Hicks and early labour?

Sometimes it won’t be immediately obvious whether you are experiencing Braxton Hicks or the very start of labour. However, by observing how the contractions progress (or don’t), you should be able to work out whether it is the real thing or just a practice.

Braxton Hicks contractions are quite irregular – unlike labour pains which come and regular intervals and gradually come more and more frequently, they will often stop and start and vary in intensity and length.

One of the main differences between Braxton Hicks and labour is the level of pain you will feel. Genuine labour contractions can be very painful and they will last for longer and come closer together. In contrast, Braxton Hicks will feel very mild and will be more uncomfortable than painful.

Braxton Hicks will often continue for a few minutes and then disappear and come back on another day. One of the easiest ways to tell which you are experiencing is to time your contractions – if they vary in length and come at irregular intervals, often with large and unpredictable gaps between them, you are likely to be experiencing Braxton Hicks.

If you are in labour, you will start to notice the contractions get longer and become more regular. They will also feel more painful and intense and you will find it difficult to have a conversation while they are happening.

Is there any way I can stop Braxton Hicks contractions?

Unfortunately, you can’t stop them on demand but you may find they ease if you change your position. If you have been out and about all day and you suspect they have been brought on by being active, taking time to rest and relax can help them calm down. Try taking a nap or having a warm bath.

In contrast, if you have been very inactive, you might want to get up and have a walk around to see if they will stop. As they can be brought on by dehydration, you may also find that drinking plenty of water will help.

When should I get in touch with my midwife?

If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and you have been experiencing tightenings for a while and they don’t go away when you change positions, call your midwife for advice. You may also want to call your midwife or maternity unit if you are full-term and finding it difficult to tell whether you are having Braxton Hicks or if labour has started.

You should always call your midwife or maternity unit if you are experiencing strong contractions which last more than a minute and come every five minutes or you feel unable to cope with the pain you are feeling at home. It is also important that you get in touch with your midwife or maternity unit straight away if your baby stops moving or you feel their movements have changed, your waters break or you experience any vaginal bleeding.

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