braxton hicks or the real deal?

Braxton Hicks are contractions of the womb that occur during pregnancy, causing your baby bump to harden and contort. Though not a precursor to labour, these “practice contractions” can be uncomfortable, and are commonly compared to strong period pains or a tightening around the abdomen. Experts aren’t entirely sure why these contractions occur, but believe they are the body’s equivalent of donning the workout gear and limbering up for labour.

what are braxton hicks?

These workouts of the womb begin as early as 6 weeks, but are not usually noticeable until around 20 weeks during the second trimester. Each “practice contraction” lasts between 30 seconds and two minutes, and occurs several times a day - although this does vary; some mothers-to-be will not experience Braxton Hicks at all, and can rest assured that this is perfectly normal. Second-time mums are more likely to feel Braxton Hicks during the early stages of pregnancy, as their bodies are more attuned to the tightening sensations.

Second-time mum and her son

braxton hicks symptoms or labour?

Braxton Hicks occur at irregular intervals, unlike labour contractions which follow an emerging pattern. Braxton Hicks will usually subside if you change position or activity and are rarely painful, unlike labour contractions which will not subside and are impossible to ignore. While first-time mums might confuse practice contractions for labour, second-time mums will be in no doubt as the two cannot be compared! Labour pains often begin in the lower back and spread to the front of the body, while Braxton Hicks mostly remain concentrated towards the front. Although Braxton Hicks tend to occur more frequently during the third trimester, they will not increase in duration or intensity - unlike labour contractions.

Labour contractions are regular and increase in strength, frequency and duration, lasting typically between 60-90 seconds. Once your contractions begin to appear regularly every 5 minutes, it's time to head to the hospital. You may experience tummy ache, cramping, backache or a pain in your abdomen, and feel pressure in your pelvis, thighs and around the sides of your stomach. You may also notice a bloody or pinkish mucus when you visit the loo, which is otherwise known as a “bloody show”, or experience fluid leaking from your vagina, which is a sign that your waters have broken.

premature labour

Braxton Hicks can be difficult to distinguish from premature labour in the later stages: if you experience contractions every 10 minutes before you are 37 weeks pregnant or notice any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor or midwife immediately as this could be a sign that you are entering premature labour:

• Aching lower back or cramping, similar to strong period pains
• Vaginal bleeding or spotting
• Pressure in the pelvic area and an urge to urinate
• Blood-streaked discharge or fluid leaking from your vagina

Expectant mum relaxing on a sofa

dealing with the discomfort of braxton hicks

“Practice contractions” may become more frequent as your due date draws near: take advantage of these rehearsals to run through any breathing exercises or relaxation techniques you may have learned in NCT classes. Braxton Hicks can be brought about by a number of factors, from exercise and dehydration to intercourse and a full-to-bursting bladder:

Here are some suggestions on how to kick those contractions into touch:

• Dim the lights, switch on some soothing sounds and sink into a bubble-filled bath to relieve aching muscles and anxious minds.
• Stay hydrated with water, herbal teas and fresh juices: dehydration leads to tense and tightened muscles which can cause cramps.
• Turn on, tune in, drop out: take a seat on the sofa and distract yourself with a box set or book.
• Let it flow! A full bladder can bring on Braxton Hicks, so don’t forget to empty your bladder as soon as the urge takes you: this could also help to prevent urinary tract infections.
• Whether it’s bare-foot to the fridge or shoe-shod to the shop, taking a stroll could help to combat the discomfort of cramping.

While it is tempting to view Braxton Hicks as labour's bullying older sister, gently teasing the body during pregnancy, practice contractions do serve as a useful reminder to slow down and relax – while you still can! Remember, contractions of any kind will soon be a distant memory, fading into your rear-view mirror along with early nights, evenings out and nappy-free surfaces; as you clock up the miles towards motherhood, the road may be bumpy, but arriving at your destination will put every pregnancy-shaped pothole into perspective.

If at any time during your pregnancy you become concerned about the nature of your contractions, do not hesitate to visit your doctor or midwife for advice and reassurance.


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