What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Non-labor contractions are easy to mistake for labor pains

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Braxton Hicks contractions happen when your womb contracts and relaxes intermittently during pregnancy. They’re also sometimes called false labor, pre-labor, or practice contractions since they’re often mistaken for true labor contractions.

While Braxton Hicks contractions can happen throughout pregnancy, you typically don’t feel them until your second or third trimesters. Some people may not notice them at all. Although they can seem scary or concerning if you’ve never felt them before or you suspect you’re going into labor, they’re a perfectly normal part of pregnancy.

Experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions while exercising

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They take their name from John Braxton Hicks, a British gynecologist who first described them in 1872 after noticing his patients were experiencing contractions but weren’t going into labor.

Here, learn about why Braxton Hicks contractions happen, how to tell the difference between false labor and the real thing, when to call your doctor, and how to cope if your contractions are painful or stressing you out.

Purpose 

It’s not known exactly why pregnant people experience Braxton Hicks contractions. However, the most common explanation is that the uterus is preparing for labor, hence the name “practice contractions.”

Signs 

While OB-GYNs are well-acquainted with Braxton Hicks contractions, many pregnant people—especially those who are expecting their first child—are understandably taken by surprise when they first experience false labor contractions.

It’s easy to think Braxton Hicks contractions are a red flag that your pregnancy is at risk or you’re going into early labor. In a 2013 study, some women reported that the sensation was so foreign that it made them worry there might be something wrong with their developing baby or that they should stop exercising during pregnancy.

Even more confusingly, the way your contractions feel might be different compared to a family member or friend, or from one pregnancy to another.

Thankfully, there are many ways to sort out what’s going on. Here’s how to determine whether you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions or true labor. 

Braxton Hicks Contractions vs. True Labor 

The main difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and labor pains is that Braxton Hicks contractions occur at random intervals and can be triggered by day-to-day activities, while labor pains develop in a clear pattern and intensify over time no matter what you do.

Here are a few key qualities that can help you identify whether you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, going into labor, or dealing with normal changes that come as your body adjusts to carrying a developing baby:

  • Timing: Braxton Hicks may seem like they have a pattern, but they ultimately don’t occur at regular intervals or become closer together over time. Labor contractions, on the other hand, last about 60 to 90 seconds, have a pattern, and become more frequent as time passes.
  • Changes: Braxton Hicks often start when you’re dehydrated, particularly active, or when your baby gets moving. Drinking a big glass of water, changing positions, or getting some rest can make them go away. Labor contractions don’t stop.
  • Intensity: Braxton Hicks tend to feel painless, weak, or start strong but weaken. Labor contractions become stronger and more painful over time.
  • Location: Usually, you feel Braxton Hicks only in your abdomen. While some people describe their real labor as only abdominal pain, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists notes that true labor contractions usually start as discomfort in your back that moves to your lower abdomen and pelvis. They may also cause pain in your side and thighs.

Besides pain from true labor and Braxton Hicks contractions, sometimes your growing uterus can trigger sharp, shooting pains down the side of your abdomen and into your groin due to stretching ligaments.

When to Call Your Doctor

If you believe you may be in labor or suspect something’s wrong, contact your obstetric care professional to figure out the next steps. According to the 5-1-1 rule, you’re in true labor if: 

  • Your contractions come every 5 minutes 
  • Every contraction lasts at least 1 minute 
  • You’ve been experiencing contractions for 1 hour

However, if you are more than three weeks before your due date, call your doctor if you have more than four to six pains in an hour.

Call your doctor or go to the hospital immediately if you notice any of the following: 

  • You can feel fluid leaking from your vagina (an indicator that your water has broken) and you’re having no contractions.
  • You’re bleeding heavily from your vagina.
  • You have continuous, severe pain. 
  • Your fetus is moving less than usual.

Coping 

Braxton Hicks contractions can be painful and annoying, especially if they’re giving you a false sense of alarm. The good news is, there are numerous coping tools you can use to ease practice contractions and get some peace of mind. 

Drink Up 

First, rehydrate. If you call your healthcare professional, this is likely what they’ll tell you to do. The most common trigger for Braxton Hicks is dehydration, which can be even worse if you’ve been sick or vomiting due to a cold, the flu, or morning sickness. Many times, Braxton Hicks will fade away after you get the fluids your body needs.

Take a Break 

Moving house, putting together your nursery, or just finished a long run? Lots of activity and lifting, in particular, can cause Braxton Hicks to start up, but that doesn’t mean you should stop exercising entirely (some moderate physical activity is good for you and your baby).

Put your feet up, get some rest, and try to schedule breaks as much as you can in the future. If you’re worried about your activity level or whether certain exercises are safe during pregnancy, contact your doctor to talk it out.

Get Moving 

That said, sometimes Braxton Hicks are also the result of too much time on the couch or the movement of your baby—like a sharp jab or kick. Here, changing your position or getting up for some light movement like a walk could help stop Braxton Hicks contractions.

A Word From Verywell 

Although Braxton Hicks contractions are a normal part of pregnancy, they can be a source of stress if you’re worried about bugging your healthcare professional with false alarms or underreacting when something serious could be going on.

Practice contractions can also be painful or seem similar to true labor contractions, so there’s no need to be embarrassed if it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

If your gut tells you something’s off, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. With a few questions, your doctor can determine whether it’s necessary to come in or keep an eye on your symptoms. Otherwise, consider Braxton Hicks contractions one of the many ways your body is letting you know that it’s preparing for the big day. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Michigan Medicine. Contractions during pregnancy: what to expect. Updated October 8, 2020.

  2. UT Southwestern Medical Center. False alarm: Braxton Hicks contractions vs. true labor. July 2016.

  3. Hanghøj S. When it hurts I think: now the baby dies. Risk perceptions of physical activity during pregnancy. Women and Birth. 2013;26(3):190-194. doi:10.1016/j.wombi.2013.04.004

  4. Cleveland Clinic. True vs. false labor. January 2018.

  5. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). How to tell when labor begins. May 2020.