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Categories
Contractions

What are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Table of Contents

Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and infrequent relaxation and contraction of muscles of the uterus, also known as false labor pains. These contracts usually start after 6 weeks of pregnancy but does not cause significant pain due to their low intensity and frequency. In some pregnant women, these contractions become much more disturbing and discomforting during the second trimester of pregnancy. However, almost all pregnant women have these contractions during the third trimester of pregnancy.

Braxton Hicks contractions are the physiological process by which the body prepares itself for labor, but they do not specify the time or beginning of labor. These contractions are not an abnormal part of pregnancy. In most cases, they do not cause pain. Pregnant women just feel mild irritation and discomfort similar to that seen during menstrual periods. [i]

Physiology of Braxton Hicks Contractions:

Braxton Hicks contractions play a role in preparing the uterine muscles for the birth process by toning these muscles. That is why they are also known as practice for labor. They also help in the softening of the cervix. These sporadic contractions may increase the blood flow towards the placenta. Oxygenated blood fills the intervillous spaces of the uterus, where pressure is relatively low. Braxton Hicks contractions aid the blood to flow towards the chorionic plate so that oxygenated blood could enter fetal circulation. [ii]

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

Braxton Hicks contractions begin as a tightening of uterine muscles in the upper portion of the uterus and then spreads in the downward direction. Some women describe these contractions as tightening of the abdomen that is periodic and infrequent. Many women describe these contractions similar to the menstrual cramps. They cause hardening and odd bending or distortion of the abdomen. These contractions feel more intense and frequent as you reach closer to your delivery date.

These contractions are usually more intense and uncomfortable for women with second pregnancy as compared to the women who have become pregnant for the first time. But in some cases, first-time pregnant women may start to feel discomfort during the second trimester of pregnancy.

Read also our article What do contractions feel like

When do Braxton Hicks contractions start?

Braxton Hicks contractions may start early in the pregnancy, but you would not be able to notice them before the 20th week of pregnancy. These contractions become more obvious after 26 weeks of pregnancy until the end of pregnancy. [iii]

Braxton Hicks Contractions vs. True Labor:

They are different from true labor pains because they are do not increase in duration, intensity, or frequency, which are suggestive signs of labor. These false labor contractions are infrequent, with uneven frequency and duration, and do not follow any pattern or rhythm. They do not cause pain and usually disappear after an interval and then reappear in the future. At the end of pregnancy, these contractions become more intense, and their frequency of occurrence increases, so women start to think that she has labor pains. At that time, they differ from labor pain in such a way that they do not cause dilation of the cervix and do not result in the delivery of the fetus.

Here we are going to compare Braxton Hicks contractions and True Labor:

  1. They usually do not cause pain, while true labor is painful.
  2. Braxton Hicks contractions have an irregular pattern of occurrence, while true labor occurs at regular intervals.
  3. They are confined to your belly or some specific area while true labor starts in the back and spread around the belly towards the midline.
  4. They reduce or stop when you change your positions or activity level. A woman can sleep during Braxton Hicks contraction. True labor aggravates with a change in position.
  5. These contractions last within a short time that is 30 seconds to 2 minutes, while true labor lasts between 30 to 90 seconds and prolongs with time.
  6. Braxton Hicks contractions don’t get close together over time, while true labor gets closer together and stronger with time.
  7. Braxton Hicks contractions are weaker, and they lessen or disappear with time, while true labor gets intense with time. [iv]

Causes or Triggers:

Braxton Hicks contractions usually occur due to periodic tightening and relaxing of muscle fibers of the uterus. Exact phenomena of occurrence of Braxton Hicks contractions is not known. But some aggravating factors or triggers have been identified that include:

  • Overexertion or hyperactive woman during pregnancy: Moderate exercise such as walking, yoga, or swimming is a good way to remain fit and healthy during pregnancy. A hard or intense workout can cause Braxton Hicks contractions. If you feel cramping or tightening during exercise, discontinue and take some rest to avoid Braxton Hicks contractions.
  • Sexual intercourse: Having orgasm during pregnancy may cause a tightening of the belly that may predispose to Braxton Hicks contractions.
  • Distention of bladder due to the fullness
  • Dehydration: When muscles are dehydrated, they start to cramp up, and this also includes the uterus. Severe dehydration may lead to preterm labor due to excessive contractions of the uterus. Drinking a lot of water during pregnancy is a good way to prevent these problems.
  • Urinary tract infections: Pain or discomfort due to UTI can predispose to Braxton Hicks contractions. Consult your doctor if you have a burning sensation during urination.

According to some studies and clinical trials, these triggers have one thing in common that is they cause potential stress to the fetus and increase the demand for blood and oxygen to the placenta for fetal requirements. [v]

Why should you be aware of Signs of Early Labor?

To deal with Braxton Hicks contractions and differentiate between the Braxton Hicks contractions and true labor, you should know about the signs of early labor while you are reaching close to the expected delivery date. Early signs of labor include:

  • Pain in the pelvis and lower back that wrap the whole abdomen
  • Brownish mucous or watery discharge
  • Increase in frequency and urgency of urination
  • Loosening of stools

If you are observing these signs along with regular and frequent contractions, you are possibly in labor. It is not necessary to meet your doctor or midwife immediately. You can tell them about the symptoms that you are observing and ask them about how long does it take to reach true labor contractions.

At the end of pregnancy, Braxton Hicks contractions are so confusing that a mother having many pregnancies in the past may not be able to identify whether it is true labor or false labor. The most convenient way to avoid confusion and stay calm is to keep yourself in close contact with the doctor or midwife. [vi]

Read also the article Signs Of Labor-How To Know The Signs Of Birth

Should I call my doctor or midwife?

  • In case of mild discomfort during the second trimester and early third trimester, you do not need to call the doctor or midwife because these obviously are Braxton Hicks contractions. However, if you feel pressure and pain in addition to discomfort in the lower back, pelvis, and abdomen, you may be having early signs of labor. Such signs before 37 weeks of pregnancy may be considered a sign of premature labor, which needs immediate consultation with the doctor or midwife.
  • If you have completed the full term, then you may wait according to the schedule arranged by your midwife or doctor. In case of strong contractions with 5 minutes gap, you should immediately go to the hospital.
  • At any time during the course of pregnancy, you should consult the midwife or doctor if you have the following conditions or symptoms:
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Constant pain in your abdomen
  • If you observe that your baby’s movements have diminished or stopped
  • Feeling very sick
  • In case of any doubt, do not hesitate to call your midwife or doctor for advice [vii]

How to Get Relieved from Braxton Hicks Contractions?

If Braxton Hicks contractions are causing irritation or discomfort, you can take the following measures:

  • Change your position or activity level, take a walk, or take rest if you are active
  • Drink a cup of herbal tea or a glass of water
  • Eat something
  • Take a warm water bath for half an hour
  • Attain mental relaxation by breathing deeply, or perform relaxation exercises [viii]

[i] Hill, W. C., & Lambertz, E. L. (1990). Let’s get rid of the term “Braxton Hicks contractions”. Obstetrics and gynecology75(4), 709–710.

[ii] Raines DA, Cooper DB. Braxton Hicks Contractions. [Updated 2020 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470546/

[iii] Lockwood, C. J., & Dudenhausen, J. W. (1993). New approaches to the prediction of preterm delivery. Journal of perinatal medicine21(6), 441–452. https://doi.org/10.1515/jpme.1993.21.6.441

[iv] False Labor & Pregnancy. Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Retrieved 10 September 2020, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9686-true-vs-false-labor.

[v] Raines, D. A., & Cooper, D. B. (2020). Braxton Hicks Contractions. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

[vi] Signs that labour has begun. nhs.uk. (2020). Retrieved 10 September 2020, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/labour-signs-what-happens/.

[vii] MacKinnon, K., & McIntyre, M. (2006). From Braxton Hicks to preterm labour: the constitution of risk in pregnancy. The Canadian journal of nursing research = Revue canadienne de recherche en sciences infirmieres38(2), 56–72.

[viii] Braxton Hicks Contractions | American Pregnancy Association. American Pregnancy Association. (2020). Retrieved 10 September 2020, from https://americanpregnancy.org/labor-and-birth/braxton-hicks-762.

Categories
Contractions

What do contractions feel like

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What are contractions anyway?

Contractions are tightening of uterine muscle fibers that occurs briefly and intermittently throughout pregnancy, and more regularly and forcefully during active labor. A contraction normally happens when the muscles of your uterus tighten up like a fist and then relax and eventually helps push your baby out. When you’re in true labor, your contractions last about 30 to 70 seconds and come about 5 to 10 minutes apart. They’re so strong that you can’t walk or talk during them.

So, what do contractions feel like

Typically, real labor contractions feel like a pain or pressure that starts in the back and moves to the front of your lower abdomen. Unlike the ebb and flow of Braxton Hicks, true labor contractions feel steadily more intense over time. During true labor contractions your belly will tighten and feel very hard. Some moms-to-be liken these contractions to menstrual cramps.

That being said, it’s difficult to predict or describe what real labor contractions will feel like for you. This is partly because everyone’s experience of pain is different. For you, early contractions may feel quite painless or mild, or they may feel very strong and intense. The pain you feel can also differ from one pregnancy to the next, so if you’ve been in labor before you might experience something quite different this time around.

Real  contractions happen when your body releases a hormone called oxytocin, which stimulates your uterus to contract. They’re a signal that your body is in labor: For many women, real contractions start at around the 40th week of pregnancy however, Real contractions that begin before the 37th week can be classified as premature.

Real contractions tighten the top part of your uterus to push your baby downward into the birth canal in preparation for delivery. They also thin your cervix to help your baby get through. The feeling of a true contraction has been described as a wave. The pain starts low, rises until it peaks, and finally ebbs away.

If you touch your abdomen, it feels hard during a contraction. You can tell that you’re in true labor when the contractions are evenly spaced (for example, five minutes apart), and the time between them gets shorter and shorter (three minutes apart, then two minutes, then one). Real contractions also get more intense and painful over time.

Some signs of real contractions include;  

  • You may see a clump of pinkish or bloody mucus when you use the bathroom. 
  • You may feel like the baby has “dropped” lower in your belly.
  • You may experience fluid leaking from your vagina. This is a sign that your “water” (a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac) has broken. Intensify with activity, rather than ease up, and aren’t relieved by a change in position.
  • Become progressively more frequent, intense and generally (but not always) more regular. The contractions usually last about 30 to 70 seconds each — and although each one won’t necessarily be more painful or longer than the last, the intensity builds up as labor progresses. Likewise, the frequency doesn’t always increase in regular, even intervals, but it does increase.
  • May be accompanied by an upset stomach, cramps or diarrhea.
  • May be accompanied by a rupture of your membranes (commonly referred to as your “water breaking“). However, this only happens in about 15 percent of labors; it’s more likely that your membranes will rupture spontaneously during labor or will be ruptured artificially by your practitioner.

How to time real contractions

Once you start experiencing contractions, timing them can help indicate how your labor is progressing. Having this information can also help your healthcare provider assess how far along you are, and whether it’s time to head into the hospital or birthing center.

Timing your contractions can also help you figure out whether you are actually in labor, or simply experiencing Braxton Hicks “practice” contractions.

Here’s how to time your contractions:

  • Make a note of the time when your first contraction starts (“time” on the table).
  • Write down how long the contraction lasts (“duration”)
  • Then mark the length of time from the start of the contraction to the start of the next one (“frequency”)
  • Keep noting these times for at least an hour to see if there is a pattern, and to see if the contractions are getting closer together.

Here’s an example of what timing your contractions would look like:

BRAXTON-HICKS CONTRACTIONS (aka False Labor).

Braxton-Hicks contractions are sometimes called “false labor” because they give you the false sensation that you are having real contractions. Although they can thin the cervix (the opening of the uterus) as real contractions do, Braxton-Hicks contractions won’t ultimately lead to delivery.

Braxton-Hicks contractions typically start in your third trimester of pregnancy. They’ll arrive from time to time, often in the afternoon or evening and especially after you’ve had an active day. You won’t notice any real pattern, but Braxton-Hicks contractions may come more often the closer you get to your due date.

False labor contractions are also irregular, don’t increase in severity or frequency and usually stop if you change positions. They may also be accompanied by other false labor signs. When a Braxton-Hicks contraction hits, you’ll feel a tightening in your abdomen. It’s not usually painful, but it can be.

Signs you’re having Braxton-Hicks contractions include:

  • contractions that come and go
  • contractions that don’t get stronger or closer together
  • contractions that go away when you change position or empty your bladder

How can you tell the difference?

This chart can help you tell whether you’re in real labor or just “practicing”:

 

Braxton-Hicks contractions

Real contractions

When do they start?

As early as the second trimester, but more often in the third trimester

After your 37th week of pregnancy (if they come earlier, this can be a sign of preterm labor)

How often do they come?

From time to time, in no regular pattern

At regular intervals, getting closer and closer together in time

How long do they last?

From less than 30 seconds to 2 minutes

From 30 to 70 seconds

How do they feel?

Like a tightening or squeezing, but not usually painful

Like a tightening or cramping that comes in waves, starting in the back and moving to the front, getting more intense and painful over time.

WHEN TO CALL YOUR PRACTITIONER ABOUT CONTRACTIONS.

Your practitioner has likely told you when to call if you think you’re in labor (a good rule of thumb: when contractions are five to seven minutes apart). If you’re not sure if you’re in real labor but the contractions are coming pretty regularly, pick up the phone anyway. Just don’t wait for perfectly even intervals, which may never come.

Concerned it’s the middle of the night? Don’t feel guilty about waking your doctor — people who deliver babies for a living get plenty of 3 a.m. phone calls and are used to them.

And don’t be embarrassed if it’s a false alarm — you won’t be the first (or last) expecting mom to misjudge her labor signs. Besides, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

Your practitioner will want you to answer a few questions, not only to provide information, but also to hear the tone of your voice. As you talk through the contraction, he or she will probably be able to tell whether it’s the real thing — so don’t try to cover up the pain in the name of good phone manners.

Your provider will use all the information to decide whether you should head to the hospital or birthing center, or whether you should stay home a little longer where you may feel more comfortable and relaxed during the early stages of labor.

WHEN TO HEAD TO THE HOSPITAL IMMEDIATELY.

Be sure to call your practitioner right away and if you can’t get through, head for the hospital in the following instances:

  • Your contractions are increasingly strong but you haven’t yet reached 37 weeks; you may be experiencing preterm labor
  • Your water breaks, with or without other signs of labor
  • Your water breaks and it has a greenish-brown tint
  • You feel the umbilical cord slip into your cervix or vaginal canal, which could be cord prolapse

It’s perfectly natural to feel anxious about contractions and labor as your due date approaches. Talking to your healthcare provider or your doula about any worries you have can help put your mind at ease.

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