Between all the trips to the bathroom, the reflux after every meal, and nausea galore, you’ve probably had your fill of less-than-fun pregnancy symptoms. (Where is that glow they always talk about?) Just when you think you’re in the clear, you feel a tightening in your tummy. And then another one.
Are these . . . contractions?
Don’t grab your hospital bag and rush out the door just yet. What you’re likely experiencing are called Braxton-Hicks or “false labor” contractions. Feeling them can be exciting and — sometimes — alarming, but it doesn’t mean your baby will be born today or even next week. Instead, Braxton-Hicks are a sign that your body is warming up for the main event.
Braxton-Hicks contractions feel like a tightening in your lower abdomen. The degree of tightness can vary. You may not even notice some mild ones, but stronger contractions may take your breath away.
Some women describe them as feeling similar to period cramps, so if Aunt Flo does a number on you each month you know what you’re in for with Braxton-Hicks.
Unlike real labor contractions, Braxton-Hicks don’t get closer together. They come and go, whether weaker or stronger, without any sort of pattern.
These contractions may begin as early as
They may be infrequent at first, happening only a few times a day. As you enter your third trimester and get closer to delivery, your Braxton-Hicks contractions may happen multiple times an hour for hours on end (much like the questions from strangers about when you are due).
They’ll be especially frequent if you’ve been on your feet a lot or are dehydrated. As a result, the contractions may stop after you rest, drink water, or change your position.
Again, Braxton-Hicks may gradually help thin and soften the cervix, but they won’t cause dilation for the birth of your baby.
So, how can you tell the difference between Braxton-Hicks and labor contractions? The good news is that there are some distinguishing factors that may help clue you in.
Keep in mind that any time you’re having contractions or wonder whether or not you’re in labor, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor or midwife.
|When they start
|Early on, but most women don’t feel them until the second trimester or third trimester
|37 weeks — any sooner may be a sign of premature labor
|How they feel
|Tightening, discomfort. May be strong or weak, but don’t progressively get stronger.
|Strong tightening, pain, cramping. May be so intense you can’t walk or talk during them. Get worse with time.
|Where you’ll feel them
|Front of abdomen
|Start in back, wrap around abdomen
|How long they last
|30 seconds to 2 minutes
|30 to 70 seconds; longer over time
|How often they occur
|Irregular; can’t be timed in a pattern
|Get longer, stronger, and closer together
|When they stop
|May go away with changes in position, rest, or hydration
|Don’t ease up
The exact cause of Braxton-Hicks contractions isn’t known. Still, there are some triggers that seem to bring them about somewhat universally.
Possible causes include:
- Dehydration. Pregnant women need 10 to 12 cups of fluid each day, so get yourself a water bottle and start drinking.
- Activity. You may notice Braxton-Hicks later on in the day after being on your feet too much or after doing strenuous exercise. Sometimes strenuous exercise may just be fitting into your maternity jeans. That’s okay.
- Sex. Orgasm may make the uterus contract. Why? Your body produces oxytocin after orgasm. This hormone makes muscles, like the uterus, contract. Your partner’s semen contains prostaglandins that may also bring about contractions.
- Full bladder. A full bladder may put pressure on your uterus, causing contractions or cramping.
After you’ve confirmed with your doctor that what you’re experiencing are Braxton-Hicks and not labor contractions, you can relax. Quite literally — you should try to take it easy.
There is no medical treatment needed for these contractions. Try focusing on resting, drinking more fluids, and changing your position — even if that just means moving from the bed to the couch for a while.
- Going to the bathroom to empty your bladder. (Yeah, like you’re not doing that every hour already?)
- Drinking three to four glasses of water or other fluids, like milk, juice, or herbal tea. (Hence all the bathroom trips.)
- Lying on your left side, which may promote better blood flow to the uterus, kidneys, and placenta.
If this method isn’t working or you’re experiencing a lot of Braxton-Hicks, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about possible treatments. You may have what’s called an irritable uterus. While lifestyle treatments are preferred, there are certain medications that may help ease your contractions.
Braxton-Hicks aren’t the only cause of abdominal pain and cramping during pregnancy. And labor isn’t the only other option. Consider if you might be experiencing one of the following conditions.
Urinary tract infection
As your baby grows, the uterus presses on your bladder. Besides making sneezing dangerous, this means you need to pee more, but it also means there’s more opportunity for urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Beyond abdominal pain, you may experience anything from burning with urination to more frequent/urgent trips to the bathroom to fever. UTIs can get worse and even impact the kidneys without treatment. You’ll need prescription medicine to clear the infection.
Gas or constipation
Gas and bloating may be worse during pregnancy due to high levels of the hormone progesterone. Constipation is another stomach issue that may cause discomfort and even pain In fact, constipation is quite common during pregnancy.
If increasing your fluid and fiber intake and getting more exercise doesn’t help matters, ask your doctor about laxatives and stool softeners to help get things, uh, moving again.
Round ligament pain
Ouch! Sharp pain on the right or left side of your belly may be round ligament pain. The feeling is a brief, shooting sensation from your abdomen to your groin. Round ligament pain happens when the ligaments that support your uterus stretch to accommodate and support your growing belly.
More serious issues
Placental abruption is when the placenta detaches either partially or entirely from the uterus. It may cause intense, constant pain and make your uterus very tight or hard.
Preeclampsia is a condition when your blood pressure rises to unsafe levels. You may feel upper abdominal pain near your rib cage, particularly on your right side.
These issues require immediate medical attention. So, if you think you are having Braxton-Hicks contractions but the pain becomes severe and doesn’t let up, get medical help as soon as possible.
Be sure to contact your healthcare provider any time you have concerns about your pregnancy. Specifically with contractions, you want to be on the lookout for other early labor signs before you reach 37 weeks gestation.
- contractions that grow stronger, longer, and closer together
- continual backache
- pressure and cramping in your pelvis or lower abdomen
- spotting or bleeding from the vagina
- gush or trickle of amniotic fluid
- any other change in vaginal discharge
- not feeling your baby move at least 6 to 10 times in an hour
Am I overreacting?
Don’t worry! You may feel you’re being pesky, but doctors and midwives get false alarm calls all the time. Addressing your concerns is part of their job.
It’s better to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to delivering your baby early. If you’re experiencing true labor, there may be things your provider can do to stop it if they’re notified in time and let your baby cook a little while longer.
Related: 6 telltale signs of labor
Still unsure if your contractions are real or “false” labor? Try timing them at home. Write down the time your contraction starts and when it finishes. Then write down the time from the end of one to the start of another. Record your findings over an hour’s time.
In general, it’s a good idea to call your doctor or midwife if you’ve had 6 or more contractions lasting 20 to 30 seconds — or if you have any other symptoms suggesting you’re in labor.
Otherwise, put your feet up (and maybe even get someone else to put some polish on your toes) and soak in these final moments before your little one arrives.