What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?
June 18, 2021
Contractions are a normal part of childbirth, but before “real” labor starts, you may experience “false” labor contractions, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions. While contractions of any kind are never fun, Braxton Hicks contractions are generally harmless (discomfort aside)—they’re just your body warming up for birth.
Determining whether you’re going into labor can be confusing, especially if it’s your first pregnancy. You might feel like you’re about to have your baby, only for the doctors or nurses to tell you that you aren’t actually experiencing labor contractions yet. So what gives? Below, we tapped the experts to answer all your questions about Braxton Hicks contractions, from what they are to how to relieve your symptoms, plus how to lower the odds you’ll ever 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?
Braxton Hicks vs. real contractions
How to relieve Braxton Hicks contractions
When to call the doctor about Braxton Hicks contractions
Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular contractions that can happen on and off before you’re actually in labor. 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. In fact, it’s thought that Braxton Hicks contractions help tone the muscles of your uterus and prepare your cervix for birth—think of them as practice for the real deal.
Braxton Hicks contractions are common, but not everyone experiences them or is even aware that they are. While they can be quite painful, often, “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.
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. Urinary tract infections (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. Even just standing on your feet or walking around for an extended period of time can trigger them. If you’ve been active and you start experiencing contractions, she recommends resting for a bit to see if they subside.
• Sex. Some women experience Braxton Hicks contractions during or after sex. When you orgasm, your body releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes your muscles contract. Plus, all that physical activity can prompt those contractions. They’re usually mild and resolve soon after intercourse.
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.
If you’re wondering how you’ll know if what you’re experiencing are real labor pains, you’re no doubt curious to know, “what do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?” Braxton Hicks contractions generally make your uterus feel like “a very tense basketball,” Greves says, as your muscles tighten. But everyone experiences these contractions differently; some women may feel a little uncomfortable, as if they’re having mild menstrual cramps, while others can actually be in pain. “Anywhere between discomfort and pain can be characterized as Braxton Hicks contractions,” Shepherd says.
The main difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and real contractions is that Braxton Hick isn’t a sign that you’re going into labor, while labor contractions indicate that your body is preparing to give birth.
So how do you know when it’s Braxton Hicks and not the real thing? One of the key differences between Braxton Hicks contractions vs. real contractions is that they’re irregular, while labor contractions are consistent. Braxton Hicks contractions usually last between 15 and 30 seconds at a time (but sometimes as long as two minutes), and they often subside when you change positions or activity. Real contractions, however, are more consistent, lasting anywhere between 30 and 90 seconds and become longer over time, and they don’t ease up when you move around.
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. Plus, Braxton Hicks contractions are usually felt only in the front, whereas real contractions start in the back and move to the front.
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. You should also contact your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
Braxton Hicks can be confusing, but these contractions aren’t usually cause for alarm. However, if you’re still not sure whether you’re experiencing the real deal, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor. And if they are practice contractions, don’t worry—baby will be arriving soon; you just need to be a little more patient until they’re ready to make their grand entrance.
About the experts:
Jessica Shepherd, MD, FACOG, is an ob-gyn and minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. She is also the founder of Her Viewpoint, an online women’s health forum that focuses on addressing taboo topics in women’s health in a comfortable setting. She received her medical degree from Ross University School of Medicine in 2005.
Sherry A. Ross, MD, is an ob-gyn and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and author of she-ology and she-ology, the she-quel: let’s continue the conversation.
Christine Greves, MD, FACOG, is an ob-gyn at the Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida. She received her medical degree from the University of South Florida College of Medicine.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.