What are Braxton Hicks Contractions (AKA False Labor)?

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Written by: Pedro Pinheiro, MD

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Estimated reading time for the article: 3 minutos

Introduction

Braxton Hicks contractions, also called “false labor pains” or “practice contractions”, are uterine contractions usually experienced during the third trimester of pregnancy.

While these contractions often cause some worry for the expectant mother, they are innocuous, pose no harm to the baby, and are not associated with the onset of labor.

In this article, we will discuss what Braxton Hicks contractions are, their symptoms, and how they differ from actual labor contractions.

What are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

First described in 1872 by physician John Braxton Hicks, Braxton Hicks contractions serve as a way for the uterus to “practice” for the moment of birth. These contractions are not expulsive and do not pose a risk of preterm labor. No pregnant woman goes into labor due to Braxton Hicks contractions.

Though practice contractions may be present from the first trimester of pregnancy, they are typically subtle and often go unnoticed until the end of the second trimester. As the pregnancy progresses, Braxton Hicks contractions tend to become more frequent, occurring up until the final weeks of gestation.

Braxton Hicks contractions are brief and occur at irregular and unpredictable intervals. They can be triggered by various factors, such as increased activity by the mother or baby, abdominal palpation, sexual intercourse, dehydration, or having a full bladder.

Differences Between Braxton Hicks Contractions and True Labor Contractions

One of the most notable differences between Braxton Hicks contractions and true labor contractions is that the former are generally painless and irregular in frequency. While false labor contractions can be uncomfortable at times, they are quite distinct from the intense and painful contractions experienced during labor.

The way women describe practice contractions can vary. Some describe them as similar to mild menstrual or intestinal cramps, although this is not the most common description. Typically, women report them as painless uterine contractions or as if the muscles across the belly are tightening.

As previously mentioned, Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular with unpredictable intervals and do not become progressively intenser and more frequent over time, in contrast to true labor contractions.

Another characteristic of false labor is the alleviation of contractions after a simple change in position. If a woman is standing, often sitting or lying down can make the contractions disappear. Lying on one’s side also tends to help.

Conversely, during labor, changing positions does not affect contractions. Once expulsive contractions begin, nothing can alleviate them.

Below, we summarize the main characteristics of Braxton Hicks and labor contractions.

Characteristics of Braxton Hicks contractions:

  • Typically painless.
  • Occur infrequently throughout the day.
  • Usually, do not occur more than twice per hour.
  • Irregular and unpredictable.
  • Short, generally lasting less than 30 seconds.
  • Do not become more intense over time.
  • If one contraction is severe, the next is often weaker.
  • Usually localized to one part of the abdomen, typically the front.
  • Improve with changes in position.
  • Improve with hydration or urination.

Characteristics of true labor contractions:

  • Painful.
  • Once they start, they do not stop.
  • Become progressively stronger.
  • Become gradually more frequent and predictable.
  • Intervals between contractions shorten over time.
  • Last from 30 to 70 seconds.
  • Do not improve with position changes or hydration.
  • Often located in the back and front of the abdomen (can start in the back and move to the front or vice versa).

When Should I Worry About Braxton Hicks Contractions?

You need not be concerned about Braxton Hicks contractions, as they are a normal and frequent occurrence during pregnancy.

Most women can easily distinguish between Braxton Hicks contractions and labor contractions. However, if you are uncertain or the pattern of contractions has recently changed, contact your obstetrician.

Some warning signs should not be ignored, even if the contractions do not exhibit the characteristics of labor mentioned above. These include:

  • Vaginal bleeding.
  • Fluid leakage from the vagina.
  • Sudden, intensely painful contractions.
  • A noticeable reduction in the baby’s movements.

What Can I Do to Alleviate Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Although Braxton Hicks contractions are typically painless, they can cause discomfort. To alleviate this discomfort, try the following:

  1. Change your position. If you are standing, sit down; if you are sitting, stand up.
  2. Drink plenty of water.
  3. Urinate if you feel the urge.
  4. Avoid exertion.
  5. Take a warm bath.
  6. Try eating.
  7. Use relaxation techniques (if familiar with any).
  8. Don’t worry about practice contractions; they are benign and part of a healthy pregnancy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Braxton Hicks contractions indicate a problem in pregnancy?

No, Braxton Hicks contractions are harmless. However, if you experience intense pain, vaginal fluid, blood loss, or decreased baby movement, contact your doctor, as these could be signs of a complication.

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

Expectant individuals often describe Braxton Hicks contractions as mild menstrual cramps or a tightening sensation in a specific abdomen area that comes and goes. These contractions can be uncomfortable but are usually painless.

What is the typical number of Braxton Hicks contractions per day?

No specific number of Braxton Hicks contractions is considered “normal” per day. The frequency of practice contractions can vary significantly depending on the stage of pregnancy and individual factors. Generally, they occur a few times a day, but may become more frequent during the third trimester and are typically irregular and unpredictable.

How can I relieve Braxton Hicks contractions?

Change your position. You can lie down if you are standing, or take a walk if you have been sitting or lying down for a long time. Other options include taking a warm bath, drinking water, tea, or milk to stay hydrated, getting a massage, reading a book, listening to music, urinating, or taking a nap.

How long do Braxton Hicks contractions last?

Generally, each episode lasts about 15 to 30 minutes, but it can sometimes take up to 2 minutes.

How do I know if I’m experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions?

Your contractions are likely Braxton Hicks if they have the following characteristics:
Painless or mildly painful.
Occur at irregular and unpredictable intervals.
Short in duration (usually less than 30 seconds).
Do not increase in intensity or frequency over time.
Improve or disappear with changes in position, hydration, or bladder emptying.
Do not present any severe symptoms, such as bleeding, fluid loss, or intense abdominal pain.

Do all women experience Braxton Hicks contractions?

No, it is perfectly normal to go through the entire pregnancy and not feel the Braxton Hicks contractions even once.


References


Author(s)

Pedro Pinheiro holds a medical degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and is a specialist in Internal Medicine and Nephrology, certified by the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and the Brazilian Society of Nephrology (SBN). He is currently based in Lisbon, Portugal, with his credentials recognized by the University of Porto and the Portuguese Nephrology Specialty College.

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