Experts are divided on whether Braxton Hicks contractions have any important part to play during pregnancy – but they sure do have us worried sometimes!
What are they?
Braxton Hicks contractions (named after Dr John Braxton Hicks, who first made reference to them in the 19th century) are brief and harmless tightenings of the uterus, which often seem to start happening around halfway through your pregnancy.
In fact, they have probably been occurring since much earlier than that, but they become more noticeable as your uterus grows – and it can be a surprise during a first pregnancy, when your tummy suddenly goes rock hard.
It’s not entirely clear whether Braxton Hicks happen for a reason; some people believe they are your body’s way of softening the cervix and increasing its elasticity in preparation for labour, while others think perhaps it’s the uterus muscles flexing and toning ready for the big push.
Some parents-to-be probably think Braxton Hicks are nature’s way of making sure you have your route to the hospital planned to a ‘T’ – many so called ‘false’ labours are down to Braxton Hicks being confused for the real thing.
As with all pregnancy symptoms, Braxton Hicks can range in severity from woman to woman. Some never experience them at all (and that’s nothing to be concerned about) whereas others seem to get them very frequently.
Certainly, they tend to increase in intensity as time goes on; in earlier stages they might feel like period pains, low down in your tummy, but later, you might feel your entire uterus harden, top to bottom and front to back, and it can feel pretty uncomfortable.
Although there’s no definitive cause for them, Braxton Hicks contractions can be triggered by certain things – sex for one, but considerably more boring activities, such as climbing the stairs, can set them off too (in my final month, I found I couldn’t even step off a bus without my tummy turning into a bowling ball, and I’d have to swagger home a la John Wayne!).
If you are finding Braxton Hicks uncomfortable (and they can be exceedingly so), you need to just try to relax and let the contraction pass. Sometimes, they will come on if you have been in the same position for too long, so change your position, have a walk around, and have a stretch.
Near the end of your pregnancy, you might find Braxton Hicks come on with some regularity (for example, every half an hour), and this is when you might confuse them with labour. If you think you are in labour, but you are just experiencing Braxton Hicks, your midwife will confirm this by examining your cervix.
How will I know it’s not the start of labour?
Although some first-time mums understandably confuse Braxton Hicks with labour, there are ways to tell the two apart.
• Braxton Hicks contractions are short, and usually last a maximum of a minute, whereas labour contractions might last much longer.
• Braxton Hicks are usually irregular (even though you might have several during the course of a day), and might be brought on by physical activity, whereas once labour contractions start, they continue with regularity and become increasingly frequent.
• Braxton Hicks tend not to be painful (although they can be exceedingly uncomfortable) whereas labour contractions will become increasingly painful as the day/night goes on.
• Real labour comes with some other telltale signs: you might have severe lower back pain; you might have a show (a mucus discharge as your cervix plug comes away); you might have a sudden bout of diarrhoea (your body might wish to clear itself out before labour); and your waters might break.
If you have not yet reached 37 weeks and you have any of the above symptoms, you should contact your midwife team as you might be beginning premature labour.
If you have any bleeding, with or without anything described above, contact your midwife straight away.
For more information on Braxton Hicks, as well as the signs and symptoms of labour, visit the NHS Choices website.