Braxton Hicks Contractions

Pregnancy | | Louise Broadbridge


What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Well, you have navigated the pregnancy sickness, managed the heartburn, worked out the quickest route to every toilet in the county and apologised to your partner for your mild mood swings! Then, just when you are finding your pregnancy stride, you feel a strange sensation in your tummy and find yourself worrying you may be going into labour…

From quite early on in your pregnancy your uterus will tighten and relax without you even knowing it is happening. This can begin as early as six weeks of gestation. However, it is not usually until the second or third trimester that women report feeling a tight sensation across their abdomen.

Often referred to as “practice contractions” the term Braxton Hicks originated when, in 1872, Dr John Braxton Hicks spoke about the difference between the female body preparing for labour and the female body actually experiencing meaningful contractions.

What does a Braxton Hicks contraction feel like?

Describing any type of labour pain can be quite difficult because it is almost like asking someone to describe what a banana tastes of! These mild practice contractions cause a tightening of the muscle across the abdomen and, although usually described as “not painful”, as a midwife, I have known women to seek reassurance as the sensation can feel quite intense.

If you place your hand on your abdomen when you feel the beginnings of this tightening, you should feel the uterine contraction starting at the top of your tummy and slowly spread across your whole tummy.

What causes Braxton Hicks contractions

Some obstetricians believe that Braxton Hicks contractions help to prepare the uterus, which is a muscle, to prepare for the work of labour. In addition this activity could be helping the blood flow to the placenta. That said, there are thought to be some situations that can bring on a practice contractions, these include:

  • Increased activity of mum or baby
  • A full bladder – this can put pressure on your uterus resulting in discomfort.
  • Dehydration – you should be aiming to drink at least 1.5 litres of fluid per day
  • Following sexual intercourse – sex prompts the release of oxytocin which causes muscle contractions. In addition semen contains a hormone called prostaglandin, which is also thought to promote contractions.
  • Being unwell

What is the difference between Braxton Hicks and the real deal?

Braxton Hicks

  • Can be felt as early as the second trimester
  • There is no pattern. They will come and go.
  • They are short lived - usually less than 60 seconds
  • May be uncomfortable but rarely painful
  • They can stop as soon as they started

Labour contractions

Unless you are experiencing preterm labour, contractions won’t start until after 37 weeks. They may initially be quite far apart but the gaps between contractions will get shorter and shorter. Your contractions will build like a wave, lasting up to 70 seconds, and become stronger as labour progresses.

True labour contractions won’t stop but will continue to increase in intensity until your baby is born.

What can I do to help relieve Braxton Hicks contractions?

Although there is no silver bullet that will just ‘turn off’ your Braxton Hicks contractions, there are a few things you could try to ease any discomfort:

  • If you have been standing or sitting for a long period of time, have a move around. Equally if you have been laid down and are uncomfortable, try a change of position.
  • Make sure you are well hydrated. As we all know, this is often a suggested remedy for may ailments so, even if it doesn’t help the Braxton Hicks, it certainly won’t do you any harm!
  • Run yourself a nice relaxing bath or, better still, get your partner to do it for you.
  • Ask your partner for a massage.

When should I call my midwife?

Hopefully you have attended some great antenatal classes and you feel prepared for navigating the early hours of labour, but, if at any point in pregnancy you find yourself a little uncertain or worried, it is always a good idea to run things past your midwife.

If you are unsure if your Braxton Hicks have turned into real contractions and are less than 37 week along, give your midwife a call.

In addition if you experience any of the following contact your maternity unit straight away:

  • Bleeding
  • Reduced fetal movements
  • Waters breaking
  • Feeling unwell

Remember, Braxton Hicks contractions will come and go and vary in length and strength. If you find you have two or three contractions in quick succession and then nothing for another few hours, these are Braxton Hicks. Eventually, the balance will tip the scale and practice contractions will no longer be needed as you progress into established labour.