If this is your first pregnancy, the first time you feel a Braxton Hicks contraction you may be a little alarmed. These contractions start about the 6th week of pregnancy, but most women don’t feel them until much later. These contractions are named after the doctor that discovered them in 1872, John Braxton Hicks. If you do feel these contractions, later in pregnancy you may begin to get more frequent Braxton Hicks. They usually are not accompanied by any pain and often women may mistake them for early labor or vice versa.

What Causes Braxton Hicks?

While the actual cause of Braxton Hicks isn’t completely clear, researchers believe that it is the body’s own way of exercising the muscles of the uterus to prepare it for labor. It may also help to “squeeze” more blood flow into the placenta to nourish the baby. These contractions do not seem to have much effect on the cervix and don’t cause dilation like “real” labor contractions. However, they do appear to soften the cervix later in pregnancy to help prepare it for dilation. There are some known factors that trigger Braxton Hicks:

  • Mom’s activity levels
  • An overly active baby
  • Outside touch on mom’s abdomen
  • Dehydration
  • Sexual intercourse
  • A full bladder

What Does It Mean If I Have Frequent Braxton Hicks?

Braxton Hicks are a type of “practice contraction” for the uterus. They are usually very infrequent and go away on their own. Frequent Braxton Hicks may just signal that your uterus needs more toning to prepare for ‘true labor.” If contractions ever become painful, do not go away or get closer together contact your doctor or go to your nearest birthing center. Sometimes once you get checked and Braxton Hicks are confirmed, they become a little less unnerving. The later you are in pregnancy, there is a slight chance it could trigger labor contractions and if you are prior to your 37th week of pregnancy your doctor may want to monitor you closely in the birthing unit.

Precaution: Braxton Hicks could signal pre-term labor and they may need treatment

Braxton Hicks can actually be pretty regular occurring every 5 to 10 minutes and go on for weeks at a time. If they are ever accompanied by low back pain and pressure, they need to be checked. The birthing center will put you on a monitor to see if they are real contractions. Braxton Hicks usually are not even strong enough to register on the monitor. The nurse will check your cervix to see if you are dilating. If they register and your cervix is starting to change, you could possibly be in “pre-term” labor and if you are prior to the 37th week of pregnancy there is cause for concern. If there are no changes, you will most likely be sent home. What is important is to listen to your intuition.

Other People’s Experiences of Frequent Braxton Hicks

Case 1: Normal Labor

If you are having frequent Braxton Hicks, I agree you should at least call your doctor. I experienced a lot of Braxton Hicks with my first pregnancy and at 27 weeks I went to the hospital and needed a shot to get them under control. I did go on to full term and had my baby at 40 weeks 1 day. With my second pregnancy I experienced Braxton Hicks early on coming about every 10 minutes. They kept me up all night around 35 weeks, but I still went on to deliver at 40 weeks and 6 days.”

Case 2: Preterm Labor

“I had constant Braxton Hicks contractions at 34 weeks with my first pregnancy and they were uncomfortable. I went to the birthing center and found out it was in fact “true labor.” After I got to the hospital, my water broke and my baby was born at 34 weeks. He is fine, but had to stay in the NICU for a while. My second pregnancy I started having Braxton Hicks early on and my doctor monitored me and treated me early on. My second baby was delivered at 39 weeks and born healthy.”

What If Braxton Hicks Become Uncomfortable?

If you are close to your baby’s due date you can try a few things at home to see if they will go away:

  • Change position or take a rest break. If you are sitting, try getting up and walking around. If you are walking, try to lay down and rest. Real contractions will not stop whatever you do or whatever position you are in.
  • Drink fluids. You may be dehydrated. Try drinking a few glasses of water, electrolyte drink or other non-caffeinated beverage. If dehydration was the cause, they will ease up.
  • Try a warm bath. Stress can bring on Braxton Hicks. You can try a warm bath to help relax your body and ease stress.
  • Use slow deep breathing. Slow deep breathing can help ease the discomfort with Braxton Hicks. If you are already in childbirth classes, this is the time to use some of the techniques you learned in class.

When to Call the Doctor 

If you are not yet 37 weeks pregnant and the above techniques do not work to stop the contractions, you need to contact your doctor if:

  • You have any kind of low back pain, abdominal cramping, or low abdominal pain
  • You experience more than four Braxton Hicks per hour
  • Bleeding or spotting from the vagina (pink, red, brown)
  • Water or increased discharge leaking from the vagina
  • Pressure in the low pelvic area or between the legs
  • A clump of mucous that is streaked with blood (mucus plug from cervix)

After the 37th week of pregnancy, you can call your doctor as soon as the contractions start to last for up to a minute long and come evenly at about five minutes apart. Monitor them for one hour and if they do not stop, it is time to call the doctor or go to the birthing center. Call your doctor immediately if your 37 weeks and your water breaks, leaks or you are bleeding.

After you call your doctor and you are advised to stay home from now you can:

  • Try to sleep, relax and rest as much as possible
  • Listen to soft soothing music
  • Have your partner give you a backrub
  • Get into the warm bathtub (as long as your water has not broken)

Braxton Hicks vs. Real Labor Contractions

While you should never try to “self-diagnose” labor at home, before you rush to the hospital there are a few things you can ask yourself:

  1. 1. How close together are the contractions coming?

Braxton Hicks: Braxton Hicks are not regular and don’t last very long, less than 30 seconds.

Labor Contractions: Are five minutes apart or less and last more than 30 seconds.

  1. 2. Does changing positions, moving or resting make them stop?

Braxton Hicks:They tend to taper off and go away with a position change, rest or even walking.

Labor Contractions:Walking tends to make them stronger and they do not go away with rest.

  1. 3. How powerful do they feel?

Braxton Hicks:These contractions are mild and do not get more powerful. They may also start out strong and taper off.

Labor Contractions:These contractions increase and become more powerful over time.

  1. 4. Do you feel pain and where?

Braxton Hicks: Pain is usually mild if any and is in the front of the tummy or the pelvis may ache a little.

Labor Contractions: There is usually intense pain in the low back which comes around to the front or starts in the front and moves around to the back.