Braxton Hicks contractions

pregnant contractions

Whether your due date is still months away, fast approaching, or been and gone (in which case we sympathise) and whether this is your first baby or most definitely your last, it's a good idea to gen up on exactly what to expect during the finale. And one of these things is Braxton Hicks contractions.

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 Braxton Hicks happen?

Named after the English doctor, John Braxton Hicks, who first described them in 1872, today's 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. As one Mumsnetter puts it: "They are mother nature's joke on first-time mothers."

Also known as 'practice contractions', they're 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.

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Braxton Hicks vs contractions - what's the difference?

There's many a red-faced mum-to-be that'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 painful.

How can I 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 following sex. So don't get overly fruity when you need a wee and are gasping for a cuppa.

Seriously though: changing what you're doing can often help, so if you're lying down get up, or, conversely, if you're walking around stop and put your feet up.

Practising your breathing exercises, a warm (not too hot) bath, or, as dehydration is a trigger, 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 less than 12 minutes apart
  • Heaviness in your pelvis and the urge to push
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea

If you're less than 37 weeks pregnant these could be signs you're going into premature labour and you should contact your doctor or midwife immediately.

If you're beyond 37 weeks, the above symptoms could mean D-Day has arrived. 

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.

What Mumsnetters say about Braxton Hicks

  • "I had tightenings that didn't hurt from about 22 weeks. If I got too many I took it as a sign to slow down. They stopped a few days before labour started for some reason."
  • "I loved having Braxton Hicks. I had them with all three kids from about 30 weeks onwards. I felt like my tummy was shrink wrapping my baby! You could see my bump tighten up and see far more lumps and bumps of the baby at term."
  • "They're never painful but often extremely uncomfortable; it feels like someone has taken a sheet and wrapped it around your waist and is pulling it tight behind you. They often make me a bit breathless and can have me pacing the floor for hours. I never mistook them for labour, as they were never painful in the way contractions are."
  • "I'm 35 weeks pregnant and experiencing intense Braxton Hicks. I had one in a shop and leaned over the shop counter and went 'ohhh', which got me quite a few worried glances!"
  • "If you aren't sure whether they're Braxton Hicks or the real thing, have a bath or go to sleep. Usually, if they're real neither of these things will ease them and you won't be able to sleep through them!"
  • "My Braxton Hicks were worse in the evening but I could still talk through them... the 'proper' contractions were different though, they stopped me in my tracks."

Last updated: 5 months ago