Braxton Hicks Contractions

Braxton Hicks Contractions: What Do They Feel Like?

April 30, 2020
3 min read

If you experience contractions in the second or third trimester that go away without leading to labour you might be wondering what these are, and how you will be able to tell when you’re actually in labour.

These ‘practice contractions’ are called Braxton Hicks contractions, and they're one of the ways your body gets ready for labour. Find out all about Braxton Hicks contractions and how to tell the difference between these and the real thing.

What's in this article:

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions? What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like? When Can Braxton Hicks Contractions Start? What Can Trigger Braxton Hicks Contractions? How to Tell the Difference Between Braxton Hicks and Labour Contractions

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Sometimes also known as ‘false’ or ‘practice’ contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions (named after the doctor who first described them) are not actual labour contractions, although – like real labour contractions – they too are caused by the muscles of the uterus tightening.

Braxton Hicks contractions help your body prepare for birth by tightening and relaxing the uterine muscles, although they're not actually opening the cervix. This dilation of the cervix will only happen when true labour contractions start.

What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

Braxton Hicks contractions may be uncomfortable sometimes, but they aren’t usually painful. When a practice contraction starts, the top of your uterus (the fundus) starts to harden, then this feeling of tension spreads gradually downwards.

The sensation usually lasts between 30 and 60 seconds before the muscles in your uterus relax again.

Braxton Hicks contractions come at irregular intervals, so you may experience them once a day or they may be even less frequently than that, or they could come several times in an hour.

Luckily, there are a few ways to help ease the discomfort of these contractions while also confirming that labour hasn't started yet:

  • Try changing positions if you're seated or lying down; or go for a brief walk if you’re feeling up to it – movement can help Braxton Hicks contractions subside
  • Sometimes they may stop if you just have a rest
  • Relaxing in a warm bath can also help ease the tension in your muscles
  • False contractions or false labour contractions are also more likely to strike when you're dehydrated, so be sure to drink plenty of water, especially as your due date approaches.

When Can Braxton Hicks Contractions Start?

Braxton Hicks contractions are actually happening all through your pregnancy, you just don’t always feel these practice contractions.

Although you might start noticing them as early as the second trimester, you’re most likely to start experiencing them in the third trimester.

Some mums-to-be don’t experience Braxton Hicks contractions until just before labour, so don’t worry if you haven’t felt any so far – this is normal too.

What Can Trigger Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Practice contractions can happen for no apparent reason, and aren’t always triggered by anything in particular, but it’s thought that some things can help to set them off. These might include:

  • Your foetus’s movements
  • Sex
  • Physical exertion or exercise
  • Dehydration
  • Someone touching your bump.

How to Tell the Difference Between Braxton Hicks and Labour Contractions

If you notice a tightening of the muscles inside your belly before the end of your 37th week of pregnancy, you might worry you’re going into premature labour.

Later, if your pregnancy is full term, you might be wondering whether the contraction you’re feeling is just another Braxton Hicks or if it’s finally the real deal.

To help avoid this kind of uncertainty, it helps to know what Braxton Hicks contractions feel like compared to true labour contractions. Read up on what contractions feel like and try keeping the following differences in mind:

Braxton Hicks ContractionsTrue Labour Contractions
Braxton Hicks Contractions are irregular and don’t become progressively more frequent.Labour contractions are regular, predictable, and grow closer together over time.
Braxton Hicks Contractions don’t become more intense and long-lasting over time.You experience a steady increase in the strength and/or duration of labour contractions.
Braxton Hicks Contractions are felt in the front of the body. Labour contractions often start out in your lower back or abdomen. Sometimes they may feel like extreme period pains.
A change in activity or position may cause Braxton Hicks Contractions to lessen or stop.A change in activity or position will not slow or stop labour contractions.

Ask your midwife or doctor for advice if you're still not sure whether you're experiencing Braxton Hicks or true labour contractions. If you notice any of the following signs of labour call your midwife or doctor straight away:

  • Abdominal cramps or pressure
  • Changes in vaginal discharge (discharge that is clear, pink, or slightly bloody or brownish could be a ‘show’ – when the mucus comes away as your cervix begins to open)
  • A dull lower backache
  • A sudden urge to pee
  • Your waters breaking.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Q : How long do Braxton Hicks last?
  • Q : What causes Braxton Hicks contractions?
  • Q : How early do Braxton Hicks start?
  • Q : What are the most common Braxton Hicks symptoms?

Braxton Hicks contractions can cause a little discomfort, but don’t panic – they’re a completely normal part of pregnancy. Every practice contraction is helping your body prepare for the big day when you do go into labour.

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below.
The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

See all sources

You might also like: