Braxton Hicks Contractions Explained

What They Are, How To Recognise Them & What To Do

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During my first successful pregnancy (after one miscarriage), I heard about Braxton Hicks contractions, but I never got to experience them. I thought I did, but it turned out to be real contractions in pregnancy week 26. I almost gave birth due to not knowing the difference. Only bed rest and heavy medications kept the baby in my womb until week 37.

Ever since then, I have told so many moms to learn what Braxton Hicks contractions really are and how to separate them from contractions that mean that labor has actually started. Don't worry, we explain it all to you here.





All About Braxton Hicks Contractions

Why this strange name?

Braxton-Hicks contractions is a really weird name! Why aren't they simply called false contractions or preparation contractions; because that is what they really are.

I just had to find out who these Braxton and Hicks are. (Let me guess - men?)

Braxton Hicks contractions
A quick research and yes, of course a man gets to carry the name for these practice contractions.

In 1872 a doctor with the name John Braxton Hicks (photo to the left) first described these contractions officially and hence got to have them named after him. Obviously he didn't really discover them; women must have known about them for thousands of years. It would have been very interesting to hear what they were called in older cultures, but I haven't been able to find any documentation on that.

So we'll just have to bear with this strange name. They are called false labor contractions or practice contractions sometimes.

So what are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Simply put, these are contractions that don't lead to your baby being born. While no one knows for sure why they occur, a theory is that it is your uterus muscle carrying out its own training program, meant to tone the muscle in preparation for the actual birthing. Another theory is that these contractions contribute to softening the cervix (but not dilating it).

According to research, Braxton Hicks contractions will start as early as when 12 weeks pregnant, or even earlier according to some sources, but most women won't feel it then. Their strength will increase as the pregnancy proceeds.

What do they feel like?

Learning to separate Braxton Hicks contractions from real labor contractions is really important. I know some websites will tell you not to worry before pregnancy week 37, but I couldn't agree less, based on my own experience. Preterm labor does happen.

Braxton Hicks contractions are:

  • Not painful
  • Irregular and infrequent
  • Easy to stop by resting
  • Will disappear over time even if you do not rest

Real labor contractions:

  • Maybe painful (but not necessarily)
  • Regular and with increasing frequency over time
  • Continue even if you rest.

So the level of pain will not guide you, but regularity and whether the contractions keep going even if you head for the sofa or bed are likely to give you a clue.

Any particular triggers?

There are some knows triggers of Braxton-Hicks contractions, but they really can come at any time. However, sexual intercourse, exercising, dehydration, kicks from your baby and touching your belly are some known triggers.

What to do when they come

When these practice contractions start, it is really up to you whether to simply ignore them or try to make your uterus muscle calm down. These contractions really are harmless and benign, so there are no reasons from a health perspective to try to mitigate them. But it can still be uncomfortable, of course. If you want to try to mitigate the contractions try any of the following:

  • Lie down and rest (or at least sit down if you were standing or walking around when the contractions started)
  • Empty your bladder
  • Stop touching your belly
  • Drink some water or other liquid
  • Take a warm bath and try to relax

When to call the doctor or midwife

If you are not sure whether the contractions are harmless or actual labor contractions, do not hesitate to call your doctor or midwife for consultation. Most likely he or she will be able to figure out what type of contractions you are having and if not, you will probably be asked to go in for a checkup. Also, if you are less than 38 weeks pregnant and the contractions are associated with any bleeding, pelvic downward pressure, vaginal discharge or abdominal pain, you should certainly go see a doctor or midwife.

Finally, if you get more than 4 contractions per hour, it is also a good idea to have a chat with your health care provider.

All these symptoms may mean that you may be having real labor contractions. And even if premature survival rates are really good early on these days, premature labor should be avoided if at all possible.

Since Braxton Hicks contractions can be painful and real contractions can be more or less painless, at least in the beginning, don't be ashamed if you need help to figure out what it is your belly is up to.



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References

MacKinnon K, McIntyre M, "From Braxton Hicks to preterm labour: the constitution of risk in pregnancy", Can J Nurs Res 2006 Jun; 38(2):56-72.
Hill WC, Lambertz EL, Let's get rid of the term "Braxton Hicks contractions", Obstet Gynecol 1990 Apr; 75(4):709-10.
Dunn PM (1999). "John Braxton Hicks (1823-97) and painless uterine contractions". Arch. Dis. Child. Fetal Neonatal Ed. 81 (2): F157–8

 



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