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What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Yup, it’s possible to have contractions and not be in labor. Here’s the 411 on Braxton Hicks, and what you can do to ease the pain.

Contractions are a normal part of the labor process, but before “real” labor starts, you may experience “false” labor contractions, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions. While contractions are never fun, Braxton Hicks contractions are generally harmless (discomfort aside). Here’s what you need to know about Braxton Hicks, plus how to lower the odds you’ll experience them.

In this article:
What are Braxton Hicks contractions?
What causes Braxton Hicks contractions?
When do Braxton Hicks contractions start?
What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?
How to relieve Braxton Hicks contractions?

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular contractions that can happen on and off before you’re actually in labor, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Your uterus is a muscle, and anything that irritates that muscle can cause it to contract, says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of minimally invasive gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago.

Braxton Hicks contractions are common, but not everyone experiences them or is even aware that they’re experiencing them. “Braxton Hicks contractions are so subtle, most pregnant women don’t realize they’re having them,” says Sherry A. Ross, MD, a women's health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period.

These contractions don’t cause labor, says Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida. Labor contractions, on the other hand, are associated with cervical changes that mean your body is preparing to deliver a baby. “Braxton Hicks contractions are just annoying and create a lot of ambiguity: Are you in labor or is this fake?” Greves says.

What Causes Braxton Hicks Contractions?

There are several possible causes for Braxton Hicks contractions, including simply just being pregnant, but experts say these are the main reasons why you might experience them.

Dehydration. This is a major cause of Braxton Hicks contractions, according to Greves. “The area in the brain that tells your uterus to contract is right next to the area of the brain that tells you when you’re thirsty,” she says—and sometimes when you’re thirsty, it can activate the area of your brain that causes contractions. Plus, muscle cramps—including in your uterus—are more likely to occur when you’re dehydrated, Shepherd says.

A urinary tract infection. UTIs can cause Braxton Hicks contractions, Shepherd says. Luckily, they go away after the UTI is treated

Too much activity. Sometimes overdoing it can spark Braxton Hicks contractions, Greves says. If you’ve been active and you start experiencing contractions, she recommends resting for a bit to see if they subside.

When Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Start?

You can experience Braxton Hicks contractions at any point in your pregnancy, but they’re most common in the third trimester. They’re also more likely to be noticed at the end of the day. Braxton Hicks contractions generally last for 60 to 120 seconds on average, Ross says, but every woman and her experience with contractions is different.

What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

It’s understandable that experiencing any kind of contractions during pregnancy would make you feel alarmed, but Braxton Hicks contractions are usually harmless. So how do you know when it’s Braxton Hicks and not the real thing? Braxton Hicks contractions generally make your uterus feel like “a very tense basketball,” Greves says. But everyone experiences contractions differently, so some women may feel a little uncomfortable while others can actually be in pain. “Anywhere between discomfort and pain can be characterized as Braxton Hicks contractions,” Shepherd says.

One of the key differences between Braxton Hicks contractions vs real contractions is that they’re irregular while labor contractions are consistent. But pain levels are a factor too. Unlike Braxton Hicks, “real uterine contractions start as menstrual cramps and continue getting more intense and painful,” Ross says. Braxton Hicks contractions also typically subside when you get up and move, while labor contractions don’t. Plus, they’re usually felt only in the front, whereas real contractions start in the back and move to the front.

How to Relieve Braxton Hicks Contractions

The best remedy for Braxton Hicks contractions can vary depending on what’s causing them in the first place, but here are a few things to try:

Drink fluids. Given that dehydration is a major cause of Braxton Hicks contractions, having some water should help them subside, Shepherd says.

Rest. If you experience contractions after exercising or moving around a lot, it’s important to put your feet up. “Listen to your body,” Greves says. “If you feel like you’re contracting more with exercise, lay off.”

Walk around. If your contractions don’t seem to be tied to exercise, getting up and moving around may help relieve them.

While Braxton Hicks contractions are incredibly common, Greves says, it’s important to flag any contractions you experience to your doctor, who will want to confirm that you’re not in labor or preterm labor.

Updated September 2017

PHOTO: Jules Slutsky