What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

A pregnant woman experiencing braxton hicks contractions.

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What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are intermittent, usually painless contractions that may occur every 10 to 20 minutes beginning in the first trimester of pregnancy. These contractions are not usually felt by the mother until the second or third trimester. Braxton Hicks contractions are also sometimes called pre-labor, practice, or false labor contractions.

Not everyone is aware of or experiences these contractions, which were first described in 1872 by British gynecologist John Braxton Hicks. Some women will feel them frequently throughout pregnancy, while others barely notice them. Some mothers say that they notice Braxton Hicks contractions more in subsequent pregnancies than in their first pregnancy.

Why They Happen

While researchers aren't exactly sure why pregnant women experience Braxton Hicks contractions, many speculate that the purpose is to get the body ready for labor. While this "false labor" doesn't deliver a baby, it may be the body's way of prepping itself to be ready for the big day. Softening of the cervix and toning of the uterine muscles may also occur during these practice contractions.

What They Feel Like

Sometimes, women will notice Braxton Hicks contractions by casually brushing their hands against their protruding belly and happening to notice that the muscles are tightened. Other moms will feel this tightness in their abdomen without using their hands, and the sensation is usually described as uncomfortable or crampy rather than painful.

Some women even notice that their belly looks more pointed in shape than usual. But don't worry if you don't notice them. It's not uncommon to not feel them at all.

You don't need to pay attention to or do anything about Braxton Hicks contractions unless they are painful, become regular, or are accompanied by other labor symptoms, as these might be signs of preterm labor or another issue that needs medical attention. If you feel anything that's bothersome, worries you, or that you have questions about, don't hesitate to contact your doctor.

True Labor vs. Braxton Hicks

So, how can you tell the difference between a Braxton Hicks contraction and a true labor contraction? Generally, true labor contractions will get longer in duration, closer in frequency, and stronger in intensity (as in hurt a lot) over time.

If you have repeated contractions closer than 12 minutes apart prior to 37 weeks, call your doctor or midwife, as this might indicate preterm labor rather than Braxton Hicks contractions.

Braxton Hicks contractions might get closer together but not consistently. They may intermittently feel stronger, but the discomfort and tightness will go away when you move around or change positions.

On the other hand, some moms say that they only experience Braxton Hicks contractions when moving around, and they cease when at rest. Others report that they experience them more often later in the day.

Braxton Hicks
  • Contractions are irregular and don't get closer together.  

  • Contractions don't get progressively longer, closer together, or stronger. 

  • Contractions tend to be felt only in the front of the belly.

  • They may stop when you change positions or walk around.

  • They often occur at the end of the day and/or after a lot of physical activity.

  • They range from very mild to moderately painful.

True Labor
  • Contractions get closer together over time.

  • Contractions get stronger.

  • Contractions tend to be felt all over the belly.

  • Contractions last progressively longer.

  • They don't go away with movement or change in activity level.

  • They feel increasingly painful—and are strong enough to interfere with walking and talking.

Tips for Coping

While Braxton Hicks contractions are usually said to be "painless," lots of pregnant women tell a different story. However you experience them, try the below strategies to help you cope.

Labor Techniques

If you are having discomfort or pain with Braxton Hicks contractions, try out techniques that are often helpful during actual labor (you may have already learned them in a childbirth class), such as breathing exercises, relaxation, massage, and movement. Not only will you get in some good practice for dealing with the real thing, but you'll also get a sense of which strategies work best for you.

Change Positions

Many women find that simply changing positions—or their activity level—can help to diminish any pain from these contractions. So, if you're sitting, getting up and moving around can ease discomfort. If you're standing, sit down. If you've been on the move all day, try plopping down and putting your feet up. If you're sleeping on one side, try flipping over to the other one.

Try Water

Water can help reduce the discomfort of these contractions in a couple of ways. Trying a warm bath or shower may relieve any crampy feelings and promote relaxation. Playing music can help, too.

Interestingly, dehydration may induce false labor pains, so try drinking water. However, a full bladder may bring them on, as well.

Stress Reduction

Stress can worsen the perception of pain, so aim to take these practice contractions in stride. Getting comfortable with the difference between real labor and Braxton Hicks contractions can help by decreasing your worries that something is wrong or that labor is actually starting. Also, try doing activities you enjoy and find relaxing, such as watching a movie, chatting with friends, or playing a board game.

Don't Be Afraid of Activity

Plus, studies show that an unnecessary perception of risk around Braxton Hicks contractions can cause stress and discourage physical activity. Know that moderate physical activity is good for you and your baby. Having Braxton Hicks contractions while active does not mean you are doing too much—or that you need to change your behaviors.

However, it's fine to take it easy if the contractions bother you with any specific activities. Incidentally, some pregnant women report getting these contractions after sexual activity. Again, this is not an indication that you shouldn't have sex, just that your uterine muscles are active. In the vast majority of cases, sexual activity is perfectly healthy throughout pregnancy.

If you have any concerns about your activities and/or activity level while pregnant, discuss them with your doctor.

A Word From Verywell

Braxton Hicks may range from barely noticeable to annoying or truly uncomfortable—and many women wonder why they have these "false" contractions in the first place. However, while the contractions may not seem to be accomplishing anything, they are actually believed to be helpful in preparing your body for labor.

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Article Sources
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  1. Hanghøj S. When it hurts I think: Now the baby dies. Risk perceptions of physical activity during pregnancyWomen and Birth. 2013;26(3):190-194. doi:10.1016/j.wombi.2013.04.004

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