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Whether your due date is months away or fast approaching, and whether this is your first baby or most definitely your last, it's a good idea to read up on exactly what to expect during the finale. And one thing you'll need to know about is Braxton Hicks.
What are Braxton Hicks?
Essentially, they're the muscles of your womb contracting - typically for between 30 to 60 seconds at a time, but sometimes for up to two minutes.
They're irregular, usually painless, and tend to occur from around the middle of your pregnancy (although they can start much earlier) and increase in frequency as your due date nears. That's not to say everyone gets them - and there's no need to worry if you don't.
Why do they happen?
Experts are divided as to Braxton Hicks' purpose - some believe they help tone the uterine muscle and promote blood flow to the placenta; others that they help soften the cervix in preparation for labour.
Alternatively, it could just be your body having a right royal laugh at your sanity's expense.
Also known as 'practise contractions', they do provide quite handy preparation for the full-blown article. You can practise not swearing at your other half when you are doubled over - or practise your breathing exercises without feeling quite so foolish.
So what's the difference between Braxton Hicks and the real thing?
There's many a red-faced mum-to-be who's been turned away from the delivery ward thanks to Braxton Hicks - especially during the latter stages of pregnancy, when they can increase in frequency and strength - what's sometimes referred to as 'false labour'.
Typically though, Braxton Hicks differ from the real thing in that they're irregular in intensity and frequency, and their timing is unpredictable and non-rhythmic; they tend to turn up, do their erratic thing and then taper off. Plus, they're usually not truly painful; more uncomfortable.
In contrast, real contractions increase in regularity, intensity and length as labour progresses, and become progressively more painful.
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How can you ease the discomfort?
While not as painful as true labour, Braxton Hicks can still be unpleasant.
Common triggers include being active, someone touching your bump, having a full bladder, being dehydrated, or sex - so don't get fruity when you need a wee and are gasping for a cuppa.
Seriously though: changing what you're doing can often help. If you're lying down, get up; conversely, if you're walking around stop and put your feet up.
Practising your breathing exercises, a warm (not too hot) bath, or drinking a few glasses of water can also help.
When are they actually contractions?
Warning signs to look out for if you're experiencing contractions include:
lower back pain/cramping
bloody or watery vaginal discharge
regular contractions coming fewer than 12 minutes apart
heaviness in your pelvis and the urge to push
If you're beyond 37 weeks, the above symptoms could mean D-Day has arrived. If you're less than 37 weeks pregnant, these could be signs you're going into premature labour. Either way, if you experience any of the above, or you think your waters have broken, you're bleeding or you believe your baby is not moving as much as normal, you should still contact your doctor or midwife immediately.
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