Braxton Hicks contractions refer to irregular tightening of the uterine muscle.
They are usually painless, although some mothers report feeling discomfort during them.
Unlike labour contractions, they don’t become more intense, more frequent or longer over time.
This is because they are practice contractions and not true labour contractions.
Often Braxton Hicks are mistaken for true labour.
Each Braxton Hicks contraction tends to last for around 30 seconds, although they can last up to two minutes.
It’s uncommon for a woman to experience more than four in an hour.
Why are they called Braxton Hicks contractions?
They were named after John Braxton Hicks, an intelligent, hard-working obstetrician from Sussex in the United Kingdom.
He had 133 medical publications in his name, and he was a pioneer of midwifery practice.
Braxton Hicks was the first physician to describe these practice contractions in 1872, when he investigated the late stage of pregnancy.
He saw many women having contractions as they came closer to their estimated time of birth:
“It was a source of difficulty to the older obstetricians to explain how that, at a certain time, namely, at the full period of pregnancy, the uterus, passive up till then, began all at once to acquire a new power, that of contracting; forgetful that, long before the full period had arrived, the uterus has the power to expel the foetus, and under mental excitement or local stimulation, attempted to do so frequently. But after many years’ constant observation, I have ascertained it to be a fact that the uterus possesses the power and habit of spontaneously contracting and relaxing from a very early period of pregnancy, as early, indeed, as it is possible to recognise the difference of consistence—that is, from about the third month …” Dr John Braxton Hicks.
What causes Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions are thought to increase blood flow to the uterine cavity and placenta, and aid the transfer of oxygen to your baby.
Some health practitioners believe Braxton Hicks contractions are the body’s way of preparing for delivery – a ‘workout’ for the uterine muscles, if you like.
In the last few weeks of pregnancy, false labour contractions help to move the baby and engage the head in preparation for labour.
During a contraction, your belly will feel quite hard to touch.
If you look at your body in a mirror, you will be able to see your muscles tightening as you experience a contraction.
Some women report being able to see the position of the baby in the womb during Braxton Hicks.
What triggers Braxton Hicks?
Here are some common triggers for false labour contractions:
- If the mother has a full bladder
- Someone touching the mother’s stomach
- Physical activity
- A very active baby
- Having sex.
Who gets Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions start around the sixth week of pregnancy, although you might not feel them until the second or third trimester.
This is because the larger your womb, the more obvious the contractions feel.
All women have Braxton Hicks contractions, but not everyone will feel them.
Some mothers might be able to feel them early on, whereas others might experience them only during the last few weeks of pregnancy.
What do Braxton Hicks feel like?
Braxton Hicks contractions feel like false labour contractions, as your belly goes really tight and hard.
They could be closer together or spaced apart and, as time goes on, they usually settle down.
When the contractions come, some mothers find them to be pretty intense, and the pressure can cause some discomfort.
They can also cause round ligament pain as the muscles tense.
This can be worrying, but it is not harmful.
If you are experiencing this, a warm heating pad or hot water bottle on the affected part of your body will help.
Where do you feel Braxton Hicks?
Braxton Hicks contractions can be felt all over your abdomen.
You might also feel the pressure pushing down on your bladder, which makes you feel like you need to go to the toilet.
It’s also common to feel them in your back, as your baby is pushed onto all the muscles.
False labour contractions can also trigger sciatica, due to the pressure put on the nerves.
This causes pain, which starts in the lower back and then travels down the back of the legs.
Should I be concerned about Braxton Hicks?
Braxton Hicks contractions are a normal part of pregnancy and do not indicate a cause for concern.
Not experiencing them is normal, too; it just means you can’t feel them happening.
Simply continue as normal; you don’t need to do anything or call your doctor.
What should I do if I experience Braxton Hicks practice contractions?
During the last few weeks of pregnancy, you might start to experience more discomfort during Braxton Hicks contractions as the tightening strengthens.
To avoid feeling uncomfortable, you can try the following:
Change position or activity.
If you are sitting down, try getting up, taking a walk or doing some light exercise. If you were standing up, trying lying down on your left-hand side.
A change of position often causes the tightening to ease.
Have a warm bath.
This could stop the contractions, or you might find the heat relaxes you and decreases any discomfort in your abdomen.
Drink a glass of water right away.
The contractions can be caused by dehydration. Pregnant women need to consume extra water anyway, so it’s always worth having another glass to see if this helps.
Try going to the toilet.
Braxton Hicks contractions are often brought on by having a full bladder (no doubt due to all that excess water you drank to try to stop the last bout of Braxton Hicks contractions.
As the pregnancy progresses, the contractions might become more uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t grow longer, stronger and closer together, like true labour contractions do.
What are the signs of true labour contractions?
If you are worried that your contractions feel like menstrual cramps, they could be true labour contractions.
If your abdominal cramping comes in regular intervals, and if the cramps come closer together or become stronger or longer, you could be in the early stages of labour.
If these symptoms are accompanied by vaginal bleeding, lower back pain, vaginal discharge, or diarrhoea, or if your water breaks, you should ring your pregnancy care provider or doctor (Ob-Gyn).
This might not be too worrying if you are close to your due date.
If, however, you are still in your second trimester it could be preterm labour and delivery could be close.
Contact your pregnancy care provider, who will give you all the information you need.
For more information about signs of real labour and what real contractions feel like be sure to read Contractions – Everything You Need To Know.