If you feel tightening or cramping in your abdomen during your pregnancy, you may be having Braxton Hicks contractions. This is normal and not a sign that you’re ready to give birth.
Braxton Hicks contractions are sometimes called ‘false’ or ‘practice’ contractions.
What are Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions are a tightening in your abdomen that comes and goes. They are contractions of your uterus in preparation for giving birth. They tone the muscles in your uterus and may also help prepare the cervix for birth.
Braxton Hicks contractions don’t cause labour and aren’t a sign that labour is beginning.
If you’re not sure whether what you’re experiencing is Braxton Hicks contractions or actual labour, contact your doctor or midwife. They will be able to tell by doing a vaginal examination — if there are no signs that your cervix is changing, it is not labour.
What do they feel like?
Braxton Hicks contractions feel like muscles tightening across your belly, and if you put your hands on your belly when the contractions happen, you can probably feel your uterus becoming hard.
The contractions come irregularly and usually last for about 30 seconds. While they can be uncomfortable, they usually aren’t painful.
If the pain or discomfort of your contractions eases off, they’re probably Braxton Hicks contractions.
When do you get them?
Braxton Hicks contractions occur from early in your pregnancy but you may not feel them until the second trimester. If this is your first pregnancy, you might start to feel them from about 16 weeks. In later pregnancies, you may feel Braxton Hicks contractions more often, or earlier. Some women won’t feel them at all.
In late pregnancy, you may experience Braxton Hicks contractions more often — perhaps as much as every 10 to 20 minutes. This is a sign that you are preparing for labour — known as prelabour.
How are Braxton Hicks contractions different from labour pain?
There are some differences between Braxton Hicks contractions and true labour contractions that will help your doctor or midwife decide whether you are in labour:
Braxton Hicks contractions:
- don’t result in your cervix thinning and opening
- usually last for about 30 seconds
- can be uncomfortable, but usually aren’t painful
- come and go at irregular times
- usually occur no more than once or twice an hour (until late in the pregnancy), a few times a day
- usually stop if you change position or activity or go for a walk
- usually go if you have a warm bath or shower
Real labour contractions:
- result in your cervix thinning and opening
- last 30 to 70 seconds
- become very regular
- get closer together
- last longer as time goes by
- get stronger or come more often when you walk
- get stronger over time
Should I call my doctor or midwife?
If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, contractions can be a sign of premature labour. Contact your doctor or midwife immediately if:
- you feel pain, pressure or discomfort in your pelvis, abdomen or lower back
- the contractions become stronger, closer together and more regular
- there is fluid leaking or gushing from your vagina
If you are full-term, you may choose to wait until a bit later in your labour, depending on what you have arranged with your doctor or midwife. If your waters break, or your contractions are strong and 5 minutes apart, it’s time to go to the hospital.
As any stage of pregnancy, you should contact your doctor or midwife immediately if you:
- you have persistent pain in your abdomen
- you have vaginal bleeding
- you notice your baby’s movements have slowed or stopped
- you feel very unwell
If you are in doubt, don’t hesitate to call your doctor or midwife for advice.
How can I ease the discomfort?
Braxton Hicks contractions are normal and don’t need treatment. But if you feel uncomfortable, you can try:
- lying down
- taking a walk
- relaxing in a warm bath
- having a massage
It may help to practise your breathing exercises during your Braxton Hicks contractions.
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Last reviewed: October 2020