If you've never been pregnant before, you'd be forgiven for never having heard of Braxton Hicks contractions, let alone knowing the signs of them.
For that reason, Braxton Hicks contractions tend to cause confusion and anxiety among expectant mums as they can be mistaken for other serious conditions.
In July, Love Island star Cara De La Hoyde hinted that she might be experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions after noticing that her face was swollen but after being rushed to hospital, she was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia.
This is a common assumption amongst pregnant women, as not much is known about the condition. So we’ve enlisted the help of Midwife Anne Richley to shed light on what they are, why they happen and how to tell them apart from real labour contractions.
What are Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions are intermittent or irregular contractions of the womb. You can blame their name on Dr Braxton John Hicks who first described them in 1872. Braxton Hicks are often thought of as as warm up exercises for your uterus in preparation for labour so they’re definitely a good thing.
These mild, irregular tightenings are there from early pregnancy, but you’ll usually only start to feel them late in the second trimester.
These tightenings force blood from uterine veins so they can refill with fresh blood. They also help stretch out the lower part of the uterus ready for labour. Sex or an orgasm may trigger them, but don’t panic: you’re not going into labour yet.
What do Braxton Hicks feel like?
As with every aspect of pregnancy, each woman’s experience of Braxton Hicks will be different. But in general Braxton Hicks contractions are experienced as a tightening sensation in your abdomen. As your uterus contracts, your abdominal wall tightens for anywhere between a few seconds and a minute. It can feel as if your stomach has hardened into a tight ball.
If you put your hand on your bump, you may even be able to feel the muscles contract and release.
Are Braxton Hicks contractions painful?
Generally speaking, Braxton Hicks cause no more than mild discomfort, although for some women the tightening sensation in the tummy is accompanied by a dull ache a bit like period pain.
Very few women experience a short, sharp burst of pain. Whatever your level of discomfort, the sudden feeling of your stomach contracting can sometimes take you by surprise, especially if you’re in the middle of something.
When can I expect them?
Braxton Hicks are usually felt after week 20 but you may experience them as early as week 16. If you’ve already had children you’re likely to notice them earlier and the sensation may be more intense. Most women find that as their pregnancy draws to term, their Braxton Hicks contractions become more frequent in number.
You might also find that they occur more often during light activity such as housework or carrying shopping. Research has found that it’s the change in activity that eases the discomfort, so if you’ve been exerting yourself it may help to lie down and if you’ve been resting, try getting up and moving around.
How can I relieve the discomfort of Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions typically last for around 25 seconds and no longer than a minute. And the good news is that unlike the real contractions of labour, Braxton Hicks contractions are mostly intermittent, which means you may have one or two of them followed by long periods of none at all.
If they are uncomfortable, try making a cup of tea or taking a warm bath or shower to relax. You could also practise some of the breathing exercises they teach you in antenatal classes. However if you are in persistent abdominal pain you should consult your midwife or GP.
Should I worry if my Braxton Hicks contractions become more intense?
As you reach the end of your pregnancy you can expect your Braxton Hicks contractions to increase both in intensity and frequency. This is because the muscles of your uterus are getting in shape for labour.
How will I be able to tell the difference between Braxton Hicks and real labour contractions?
This is understandably one of the biggest worries for first time expectant mothers. Being told that you’ll somehow ‘know’ the difference when the real contractions start is not especially comforting! Luckily there are some pretty reliable ways to tell the two kinds of contractions apart.
Timing: Braxton Hicks contractions tend to be infrequent and intermittent, in other words they don’t come at regular intervals. If they are regular they will only be so for a short while and then stop. So, for example, you might have two or three close together and then none for a long while. However labour contractions carry on coming at regular intervals and increase in frequency and duration as time goes on. If you find your contractions are coming regularly every five to ten minutes you should call the hospital, your midwife or doctor for
Intensity: Braxton Hicks contractions do not increase in intensity. Labour contractions will become stronger and more painful as
time goes on.
- Length: Braxton Hicks contractions do not last long, usually less than a minute. As a rule labour contractions increase in duration and last 60-90 seconds.
- Control: Braxton Hicks contractions often stop if you change your position or level of activity. However labour contractions will continue no matter what you do!
Location: Labour pains usually start in your back and radiate to your front whereas Braxton Hicks contractions are felt around the front
of your abdomen.
Very occasionally women go into premature labour before their pregnancy has gone to term and this needs to be treated urgently. Call your doctor or midwife if you’re worried.
What do people mean by ‘false labour’?
The term ‘false labour’ is usually applied at the end of a pregnancy term when Braxton Hicks contractions may increase in frequency and intensity (for example every 10 to 20 minutes) to the point where they can seem very similar to labour contractions. Fortunately this doesn’t happen very often but if you are anxious or unsure don’t be afraid to call your midwife. Just hearing your voice will help her detect whether or not your contractions are likely to be the real thing or Braxton Hicks and she’ll be able to put your mind at rest.
What other signs of real labour should I look for?
There are other signs of labour which sometimes accompany real contractions including:
- Backache or a heavy aching period pain type discomfort.
- A ‘show’. The plug of mucus in the cervix which has helped seal the womb during the pregnancy comes away. It appears as a small amount of blood mixed with mucus. If you’re losing more blood there could be a problem so call your midwife or the hospital immediately.
- Your waters breaking. This may either be a slow trickle from your vagina or a sudden uncontrollable gush. Phone your midwife when this happens.
- Nausea or vomiting
If you have any concerns throughout your pregnancy, however, the best thing you can do is make a visit to your GP or contact a medical health practitioner as they’ll be able to assess your situation and offer the best advice.