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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]
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]
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
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]
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.
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:
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]
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:
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
If Braxton Hicks contractions are causing irritation or discomfort, you can take the following measures:
[i] Hill, W. C., & Lambertz, E. L. (1990). Let’s get rid of the term “Braxton Hicks contractions”. Obstetrics and gynecology, 75(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/
[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 infirmieres, 38(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.
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