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Everything you need to know about Braxton Hicks contractions

Not all contractions signal real labor. Some—called Braxton Hicks contractions—are merely practice ones.

When they occur, you might think, "This is it—I'm in labor." But what you're experiencing is a false alarm. And this confusion is especially likely if you're a pregnancy first-timer. Here's how to avoid being fooled.

What's that feeling?

Braxton Hicks are called practice contractions because they soften and thin your cervix to help prep your body for birth.

Typically, Braxton Hicks contractions feel like your abdomen is tightening. That tightening might startle you. But these contractions are usually more uncomfortable than painful. Still, sometimes they hurt.

They can begin as early as your second trimester. You're most likely to experience them in your third, though. You might notice them more at the end of the day.

Braxton Hicks vs. true labor

Don't want to make an unnecessary trip to the hospital? One way to distinguish Braxton Hicks contractions from the real thing is to write down how much time it takes from the start of one contraction to the next.

Make a note of how strong your contractions feel. And keep updating this record for one hour. Watch for differences in:

  • Timing. Braxton Hicks contractions are often irregular and don't get closer together. But contractions of true labor often come at regular intervals and—as time passes—get closer together. Each one lasts for about 30 to 70 seconds.
  • Strength. Braxton Hicks are usually mild and don't get much stronger. They may be strong and then weak. True contractions get more intense and may be so strong you can't walk or talk.
  • Change with movement. Braxton Hicks may stop when you walk, rest or change positions. Real ones keep coming despite movement.
  • Pain. Braxton Hicks are usually felt only in the front of your abdomen. But in true labor, contractions usually start in the middle of your back and move to the front.

As a rule of thumb, if your contractions are easing up in any way they're most likely Braxton Hicks. That's also true if you can sleep through them.

Don't take chances

Even with these guidelines, it can still be difficult to distinguish Braxton Hicks contractions from the start of labor. So if you have any doubt about which is which, call your provider right away. Your baby may be ready to finally meet you.

Ready to learn more about pregnancy?

Find out the reasons why some women need a cesarean delivery.

Sources: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; American Pregnancy Association; National Institutes of Health; Office on Women's Health

Reviewed 1/9/2024

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