Braxton Hicks contractions - false labour pains explained

Braxton Hicks contractions can make you feel like labour is coming.

A pregnant woman experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions
(Image credit: Getty Images/Tetra images RF)

Braxton Hicks contractions: uncomfortable and frustrating 'practice' contractions in pregnancy (opens in new tab), can mean many women feel worried they’re in labour. These tightenings of the womb are similar to the real contractions of early labour (opens in new tab), but there are a few differences. Whilst they’re likely to cause discomfort, they don’t make any changes to your cervix and they don’t usually have a pattern.

Hannah O’Sullivan (opens in new tab), NHS Registered Midwife from the Positive Birth Company, explained, “Some people get Braxton Hicks more than others and we don’t really know why. They will usually increase in frequency the closer you get to giving birth. They shouldn’t be painful and shouldn’t be really strong. Contractions that are regular and rhythmic (opens in new tab) are more likely to be the real thing. Something important to note is that Braxton Hicks contractions are all in the bump rather than the back. So you shouldn’t be experiencing new back pain or heaviness in the groin or the bottom that you don’t have before with Braxton Hicks.”

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are tightenings of the uterus and very similar to real contractions, but with some key differences. Real contractions make changes to your cervix; the lower part of your uterus, which dilates (opens) and thins to make way for your baby during labour. Braxton Hicks contractions don’t have a pattern and won’t become more frequent or closer together as real contractions do.

Research (opens in new tab) shows that Braxton Hicks contractions may start as early as 6 weeks, but you usually won’t feel them as early as this. Whilst evidence for their purpose is limited, it is thought that they increase blood flow to the uterus and “tone” the womb for the total workout to come when labour does start. 

One study (opens in new tab), published in 2021, suggests that Braxton Hicks are associated with better wellbeing in the baby. It found that women who experienced Braxton Hicks in the last two weeks of pregnancy had babies with a healthier heart rate and fewer signs of distress (shown as heart rate accelerations and variations within them).

Registered Midwife Hannah O’Sullivan, “Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without training, your uterus is stretching and toning itself ready for the main event of labour. Braxton Hicks won’t thin (efface) your cervix or dilate it at all, but they do prepare you and your body for labour. Felt entirely in the bump, these tightenings can be annoying and stressful. If you’ve mistaken Braxton Hicks for labour, you’re not alone. If you’re ever worried about contractions, though, always contact your maternity assessment unit and they can help you rule out premature labour (before 37 weeks).” 

Why are they called Braxton Hicks?

Braxton Hicks contractions are named after the British Physician who first described them, John Braxton Hicks, who was President of the Obstetrical Society of London in the 1870s. Described by his colleagues as a “obstetric pioneer”, he wrote 133 medical publications. 

But after many years’ constant observation,[..] the uterus possesses the power and habit of spontaneously contracting and relaxing from a very early period of pregnancy.

Ahead of his time, his research (opens in new tab) theorised the purpose of these Braxton Hicks contractions was to increase blood flow to the uterus and get the baby in the right position for labour.

“In the first place, it will provide for the frequent movement of the blood in the [uterus]. In the second place, the uterine action adapts the position of the foetus to the form of the uterus ... the motions of the foetus combine with the preparatory pains of labour to secure the head to present.”

What do Braxton Hicks feel like?

Braxton Hicks contractions are usually all felt in the bump and will make your entire stomach go incredibly hard. They can be associated with pains that resemble the cramping sensation of period pain. Real contractions do this too, but usually move in a rhythmic way, down the bump and are also felt in your back and bottom.

Mum-of-two Jenny told us, “I found Braxton Hicks really annoying mostly. I used to get them the most on the weekend when I was a bit more active, they must have been prompted by activity. My whole bump would go hard and it made being out and about quite uncomfortable. Sitting down for a bit and having a drink helped. So did emptying my bladder often.”

Are Braxton Hicks contractions painful?

Although Braxton Hicks are usually uncomfortable, most women don’t describe them as painful. However, everyone’s understanding and appreciation of the line between discomfort and pain is different. If you are overly uncomfortable, it’s ok to take paracetamol-based painkillers as long as you haven’t been told not to by a doctor or midwife. Remember that ibuprofen is not recommended in pregnancy.

How to calm down Braxton Hicks

You can use heat to soothe a tight and achy bump that is irritated by Braxton Hicks. A warm bath and rest, or wheat packs designed for heating in the microwave should help.

Midwife Hannah O’Sullivan suggests, “Having a drink and a rest is a good idea. Anecdotally, increasing magnesium and potassium has seemed to work for some women. Also, try to move position, or lay down on your left side and rest. Laying on your left side promotes blood flow, which is good for your circulation and your baby.”

When do Braxton Hicks start?

Although research (opens in new tab) suggests [5] they start around 6 weeks of pregnancy, Braxton Hicks contractions are not usually noticeable until midway through the second trimester, around 16 weeks. However, if you have been pregnant before (or are growing more than one baby), you may notice them earlier.

What can trigger Braxton Hicks?

Though some Braxton Hicks won’t have a particular trigger, there does seem to be a correlation with activity and hydration levels. 

Braxton Hicks can be prompted by:

  • An overly full bladder.
  • Dehydration.
  • Over-exertion and being on your feet too long.

How long do Braxton Hicks last?

Most Braxton Hicks contractions won’t last more than a couple of minutes at a time, so the discomfort is temporary. If they are lasting longer than that, or seem to be increasing in intensity, duration and frequency, it’s possible that you’re actually experiencing real labour.

Hannah O’Sullivan, Registered Midwife explains “you shouldn’t be getting a long period of Braxton Hicks, it is usually a more random thing that happens every now and again. If there is any kind of rhythm, it’s worth having a chat with your maternity unit, especially if it’s before 37 weeks."

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Difference between Braxton Hicks and contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions are:

  • irregular in how long they last and how intense they are (they might last a few seconds or a few minutes)
  • Totally unpredictable but might be prompted by dehydration or a full bladder
  • Uncomfortable but not painful
  • Relieved by rest

Braxton Hicks contractions do not

  • Make any changes to your cervix (unlike real contractions)
  • Increase in frequency or duration (real contractions become closer together and last longer)
  • Rise in intensity (real contractions usually become so intense you cannot talk through them)
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