False alarms or true labor? Learn the difference between Braxton Hicks vs contractions


Pregnancy is an exciting journey full of new experiences, changes in your body and mind, different types of sensations, and so much more.

As your body changes and prepares for your baby’s arrival, you may experience contractions. While contractions are often associated with labor, sometimes you might also experience them early on in your pregnancy, which can cause confusion and anxiety—(am I going into labor? Why am I having these contractions so early?)

However, not all contractions are the same. Many women experience Braxton Hicks contractions, also called “false labor” or “practice contractions.” To adequately prepare for labor and delivery, pregnant mamas need to understand the difference between Braxton Hicks and contractions.

Let’s explore the key difference between Braxton Hicks and true contractions backed by Certified Nurse Midwife, Sara Holt, founder of Byenveni Baby. Understanding this difference better will help reduce your anxiety and prepare you for the birth of your little one.

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

According to The National Institutes of Health, Braxton Hicks are, “Sporadic contractions and relaxation of the uterine muscles.” These contractions are irregular, vary in intensity, and feel like a tightening of the abdomen. They usually occur in the front or on one particular side of the abdomen. It is believed these contractions are a way to prepare the body for true labor but are not an indication that labor has begun.

The uterus is a dynamic muscular organ that contracts off an on throughout our lives – think menstrual cramps! As pregnancy progresses – the muscle fibers of the uterus become more distended which makes them more irritable and contractile.”

Sara Holt states that many people who are not first-time parents will feel BH sooner in pregnancy. Maybe they recognize it sooner, but they also feel a little more prominent in subsequent pregnancies.

“As long as they are not painful, and one isn’t having pregnancy complications like preterm labor, there is no danger to BH contractions,” she says“However, if a person is annoyed by BHCs – they can drink water and rest – this usually does the trick.”

When do Braxton Hicks contractions start?

Braxton Hicks often begins in the second trimester, but they more commonly occur in the third trimester. The NIH also states that these contractions can begin as early as six weeks gestation but aren’t felt until the second trimester. 

Braxton Hicks also occurs at specific times, such as:

  •  after being highly active or after intercourse
  • , if you’re dehydrated
  • , or conversely, when your bladder is full. 
  • Fetal movement can also trigger Braxton Hicks contractions.

All women experience Braxton Hicks contractions but feel it at various times during their pregnancy. 

How long do Braxton Hicks contractions last?

Braxton Hicks contractions can last anywhere between 30 seconds to two minutes. Furthermore, these contractions often stop when you change positions. As women near the end of their pregnancy, Braxton Hicks tends to increase. At this time, especially for first-time moms,  it may be mistaken as true labor but does not culminate in cervical dilation.

These contractions are normal yet unpredictable, and while uncomfortable, are not painful. They are not strong and rather than strengthen with time, they weaken. Many women describe these contractions as mild menstrual cramps that come and go.

What are true labor contractions?

Unlike Braxton Hicks contractions, true contractions are more consistent and increase in frequency and intensity over time. Moreover, true labor contractions begin at regular intervals that get closer together and stronger and do not stop as time passes.

As per the NIH, true contractions can last between 30 to less than 90 seconds and get longer as time passes. In contrast to Braxton Hicks, you will begin to feel true contractions at your mid back, these then move towards the front of your abdomen. 

Furthermore, while Braxton Hicks stops with a change in position, true contractions do not. In fact, they may become more intense with movement or a change in position.

True contractions also result in cervical dilation and, in turn, birth. Typically, pregnancies last for 40 weeks but most babies are born a few days before or after. Therefore, you can expect to go into labor naturally around this time. According to the World Health Organization, babies born before 37 weeks are preterm, while babies born after 40 weeks are overdue or post-term.

True labor contractions are defined as those that begin to change the cervix over time. These contractions may begin as irregular and mild, then organize over time (days to hours). True contractions become longer in duration – typically about a minute as opposed to shorter practice contractions. They increase in intensity as well – becoming so strong that it is hard to talk or do anything but focus on the contraction. True labor contractions may also be accompanied by mucus or bloody show discharge. Sometimes the amniotic sac will break/release as well, but not always.”

The 5-1-1 rule

According to UT Southwestern Medical Center, following the 5-1-1 rule can help you determine if what you’re experiencing are true contractions. The rule is as follows:

  • Your contractions happen every five minutes.
  • Every contraction lasts for a minimum of one minute.
  • Contractions have continued for an hour straight.

Key differences between Braxton Hicks and true contractions

When to contact your doctor

If you’re unsure if you’re experiencing true or false labor, it is best to err on the side of caution and contact your doctor. They are used to it, and you don’t need to feel embarrassed. Moreover, it’s best to head to the hospital if your water breaks. 

If you feel your baby is not moving much or at all, see your doctor immediately. Lastly, if you experience Braxton Hicks contractions in the second trimester, inform your healthcare provider just to be safe.

Being able to tell the difference between Braxton Hicks and contractions is essential for expectant moms. Recognizing the difference can help prepare you for labor and reduce your anxiety. However, it is best to take a proactive approach, especially for first-time moms, so, contact your doctor if you’re uncertain about the type of contractions you are experiencing. 

This will give you peace of mind and guarantee you the right guidance and support. Remember, every pregnancy is unique and your doctor is used to answering your questions and easing your concerns, so reach out when you need assistance.

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