The closer you get to your due date, the more you wonder when you’ll go into labor. Once you’ve made it to full term, or at least 39 weeks, both excitement and anxiety may start building up as you realize you’re edging closer to meeting your little one. Even before they reach 39 weeks, many women experience something called Braxton Hicks contractions.
Braxton Hicks contractions are often referred to as false labor pains. If you haven’t experienced them before, it can be confusing trying to tell the difference between false and real labor pains. However, once you know what to look for, it becomes a lot simpler. Many pregnant women find Braxton Hicks contractions concerning, especially in a first pregnancy, but these pains don’t indicate that you’re in labor, and they’re not anything to be worried about in most cases.
Braxton Hicks can start as early as the 2nd trimester for some women, but most don’t experience them until the 3rd trimester. If you’re unsure that what you’re experiencing is Braxton Hicks contractions, knowing what they feel like will put your mind at ease.
What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?
If you’re not actually sure you’ve ever had Braxton Hicks, you’re not alone. When I was pregnant with my daughter and started having false labor pains, I thought something was wrong at first. All of a sudden, I would feel my abdomen tighten, and although it probably lasted for only 30-45 seconds, it felt like forever.
It wasn’t until one of my prenatal appointments that I realized what was happening. When I felt a Braxton Hicks contraction coming on, my midwife told me, “You’re having a contraction right now.” After she explained it to me, I realized I’d been experiencing false labor pains.
So, what do Braxton Hicks feel like? For me, they weren’t painful, but the sudden tightening of my abdomen often made it uncomfortable to lie down or sit in certain positions. However, they usually went away after a minute or so. Many women report they mostly notice the tightening in their abdomen, or they feel as if having mild cramps.
Braxton Hicks may feel slightly different for each woman, but in general, these contractions:
- Are not painful despite possibly being uncomfortable
- Don’t follow a regular pattern or become more intense
- Go away on their own after a certain period of time
Remember that pregnant women may feel Braxton Hicks differently. Some have reported that their false labor contractions were painful. If you believe you’re having Braxton Hicks but are experiencing pain, talk to your healthcare provider so they can help you evaluate your contractions.
Should you be concerned about Braxton Hicks?
False contractions can cause a lot of uncertainty, especially when you’re not sure whether they’re real contractions or not. Anything that seems out of the ordinary can make your mind race with anxious thoughts because you care deeply about your baby’s well-being. The good news is that while Braxton Hicks contractions are fairly common, there are some ways you can try to prevent them.
Two known triggers that can cause Braxton Hicks or make them more intense are dehydration and physical activity. If you’re having a contraction and aren’t sure if it’s Braxton Hicks or not, drink a glass of water. If it’s false labor, the contraction will generally go away relatively quickly. Unlike Braxton Hicks, true labor contractions will continue even after you hydrate and move around.
Even though there are some things that seem to trigger Braxton Hicks, many midwives believe they are simply your body’s way of preparing for the big day. In the same way that you wouldn’t show up to run a marathon without training first, false labor can be your body’s way of training for the ultimate marathon. Experiencing Braxton Hicks doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re going into labor soon because unlike true contractions, Braxton Hicks don’t help dilate the cervix. Still, they do help prepare your body for when labor does start.
If you have any specific concerns about what may feel like a contraction, don’t panic. It’s likely that you’re experiencing false labor contractions, but be sure to contact your healthcare provider with any concerns you have.
Signs of true labor pain
After having Braxton Hicks contractions throughout the 3rd trimester of my pregnancy, I often wondered if I would be able to tell when I was truly in labor. Most experienced moms told me I would definitely know the difference, and they were right!
I went into labor at about 1 am after falling asleep several hours earlier. Even though they weren’t that intense at first, the labor contractions were strong enough to wake me up. I was nearly a week past my due date, so I knew it was possible for labor to start at any moment. After sitting up and getting comfortable, I soon felt another contraction. I started timing the contractions—they were about 5 minutes apart and occurring consistently for almost an hour.
The main difference between true and false labor is that true labor contractions will happen in a pattern. It’s important to speak to your healthcare provider specifically about what they want you to do, but the general rule is that once you have consistent contractions 5 minutes apart and at least a minute long for at least one hour, it’s time to go in.
If you’re still unsure, remember that true labor contractions:
- Typically last about a minute each and get closer together
- Continue even if you move around or drink water
- Get progressively stronger or more intense
If you think you may be in labor, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor or midwife and let them know what symptoms you’re experiencing.
What to do when experiencing contractions
It can be both exciting and a little scary when you feel your 1st real contraction. Here’s what you can do if you’re experiencing labor contractions and you think they may be the real deal:
- Relax: As you begin to evaluate your symptoms and contractions, stay calm. Tension during labor is part of what adds to your pain, so remember that you’ve prepared for this moment, and your body knows what to do. No matter where or how you plan to give birth, the medical team you’ve chosen is there to support you and answer any questions you have.
- Move around: This could involve doing hip circles on a birthing ball, leaning against a table or a wall, or using your partner for support. When you first start feeling contractions, it can be overwhelming, so remember to take a deep breath and change positions every once in a while.
- Time them: The best way to tell if it’s true labor or not is to time your contractions. When you get closer to 40 weeks, you might start having Braxton Hicks more frequently, so it’s important to time them to see if you’re truly in labor. I thought I was going into labor about a week before my baby was due because I started having what felt like real contractions. However, when I timed them and saw that they were inconsistent and went away after a couple of hours, I knew it was a false alarm.
- Look for other signs: Contractions aren’t the only sign that labor might be starting. Your water may also break, which could feel like a gush of fluid or a slow leak. You might also have something called “bloody show,” which is a vaginal discharge of mucus often containing some blood from the cervix. Although you may not notice either of these symptoms, if you do, it could be a sign that labor is starting.
As your due date approaches, don’t panic if you think you may be experiencing false labor pains. Braxton Hicks contractions are common and may just be your body’s way of preparing for true labor.