Pregnancy seems to come with endless unknowns. Like, for instance, why on earth did nobody mention that trapped wind in pregnancy is very much a thing? Is pregnant sex actually safe? And what, pray tell, are Braxton Hicks contractions – and are they cause for concern?
It’s overwhelming, we know. So, take a breath, whilst we tackle the latter for you.
Braxton Hicks contractions, although quite serious-sounding, are a very common occurrence when you are expecting, so if you think you might’ve experienced them or are wondering if they might await you as you make your way through the trimesters then you definitely aren’t alone.
But, what actually causes Braxton Hicks, what do they feel like, and is there a treatment? WH asked the experts…
Okay. So what are Braxton Hicks?
Sometimes known as 'false labour pains,' Braxton Hicks contractions are a kind of practice-run for labour that, incredibly, your body does on autopilot.
‘Braxton Hicks contractions are felt when the muscle fibres of the womb tighten and relax,’ says Dr Ayanthi Gunasekera, Specialist Registrar in Gynaecology at London Gynaecology. ‘They are the body’s way of preparing for labour.’ Essentially, Braxton Hicks are a normal part of pregnancy that many women experience at some point and, generally speaking, aren’t anything to worry about.
What do Braxton Hicks feel like?
Most people describe Braxton Hicks as being generally uncomfortable, but not intensely painful – comparable to menstrual cramps or a mild stitch that comes and goes. Though, Dr Gunasekera notes that perception of pain varies from person to person – how they impact you might be very different to how they impact a friend – and, whilst some do experience cramping, others don’t notice Braxton Hicks contractions at all.
In some instances, the contracting and relaxing of the womb which occurs during Braxton Hicks contractions can also make your skin feel tight, as though it’s being stretched, and cause your bump to feel more solid.
When do you get Braxton Hicks?
‘It is thought that Braxton Hicks contractions start in early pregnancy, around 6 weeks, but are only felt by the pregnant person in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters,’ says Narendra Pisal, Consultant Gynaecologist at London Gynaecology. This means that they can easily be mistaken for genuine labour pains (hence the nickname).
It’s not yet thoroughly understood why some pregnant people experience Braxton Hicks contractions whilst others don’t, however, some known triggers include:
Periods of high activity
Having a full bladder
Importantly, though, Braxton Hicks contractions are not a sign that your bundle of joy is checking out of their womb room. ‘Having Braxton Hicks contractions is more a case of the body practising and preparing than an indication that labour has begun or is about to start,’ Pisal confirms.
What’s the difference between Braxton Hicks and real contractions?
The main difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and genuine labour contractions, Dr Gunasekera says, is that Braxton Hicks will resolve after a period whilst labour progresses. And, where labour contractions cause the neck of the womb (the cervix) to shorten and open in preparation for giving birth, Braxton Hicks contractions do not.
‘Labour pains are noticeably more intense, more frequent and more painful. Labour pains will become progressively longer and the interval between contractions with decrease over time. In contrast, Braxton Hicks contractions will vary in length and strength. They are unpredictable, infrequent and have no set pattern. Most importantly, they will lessen and resolve.’
Braxton Hicks contractions could last less than 30 seconds or up to 2 minutes. They might ease – or disappear – when you change position or activity, and return again at a later date. True labour contractions, on the other hand, last between 30 and 90 seconds and become longer over time.
It's also worth noting that, whilst Braxton Hicks contractions are often only felt in one area (usually the front of the abdomen), Labour contractions tend to start in the midback and wrap around the abdomen.
When to be concerned about Braxton Hicks
The experts agree that Braxton Hicks contractions aren’t a cause for concern, but do contact your midwife for appropriate guidance and support if you’re unsure of whether you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions or not.
Since Braxton Hicks contractions generally only cause mild discomfort, you don’t need to go to the hospital. There isn’t a treatment per se, but Pisal recommends:
Lying down if you have been on your feet for a long time
Going for a walk
Ensuring your bladder is empty
Keeping well hydrated
Taking a warm bath or shower
However, if you experience additional symptoms that aren’t associated with Braxton Hicks contractions or the intensity progresses, call your midwifery team.
‘Monitor how often the pains are coming, and if they feel as though they are becoming more intense and frequent, and you think you might be going into labour, call your midwife for advice – especially if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant,’ Dr Gunasekera says. You should also seek medical advice if you experience any vaginal bleeding, or have concerns about your baby’s movements.
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