As your body changes during pregnancy to make room for your baby, there are some symptoms you might expect — and others that come out of the blue.
It’s not unusual to experience some leg cramps, back and sciatic pains and exhaustion —especially toward the end of your pregnancy. You may or may not also begin to notice menstrual-like cramping in the front of your baby belly (abdomen) known as Braxton Hicks contractions.
Braxton Hicks contractions are normal but can be quite alarming. They can leave you wondering whether you just need to take a breather or head for the hospital.
Here’s what to know about Braxton Hicks, why they happen and how to tell the difference between them and real labor contractions.
What are Braxton Hicks contractions?
Also known as false labor or practice contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions are your body’s way of preparing for the main event — childbirth. They won’t actually cause you to go into labor but will prepare and tone your uterus for eventual childbirth.
Braxton Hicks usually begins sometime after the 20th week of pregnancy or sooner if you’ve had a previous pregnancy.
What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?
The contractions are usually painless but sometimes can be uncomfortable. You might notice your baby belly (abdomen) tighten or harden.
“They tend to feel like a cramp, tightening or like the baby is ‘balling up’ inside,” said Jenny Pearson, RNC-OB, a childbirth educator at Banner Health in Mesa, AZ. “These contractions won’t occur in a regular pattern and might come and go throughout the day.”
If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort on the side of your abdomen, it may be due to the round ligaments that support your growing uterus. Round ligament pain doesn’t indicate there’s a problem with the pregnancy or that labor is starting, but definitely talk to your health care provider if you have concerns.
What causes Braxton Hicks contractions?
It’s uncertain why some pregnant people experience Braxton Hicks contractions while others don’t, but there are things that might make them more likely to occur.
“Braxton Hicks may occur in pregnant people who are very active, are dehydrated, post sex or have a full bladder (need to pee),” Pearson said.
Many pregnant people report having more of these contractions later in the day when they’re tired or haven’t had enough to drink.
What do true contractions feel like?
Braxton Hicks don’t come in a pattern and will taper off or go away. When it’s “go time,” nothing will change or stop them.
The best way to know if you’re truly in labor or not is if your contractions come longer, stronger, and closer together. This is a sign that you’re transitioning to true contractions.
If you’re still unsure whether it’s false labor or real labor, contact your health care provider. They may have you come in to be assessed.
“The only way to truly differentiate the two is to have your cervix examined,” Pearson said. “Braxton Hicks contractions don’t tend to cause cervical changes, but true contractions will cause the cervix to thin (efface) and open (dilate).”
When should I worry about Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks are normal and common during pregnancy, but they can be worrisome. Preterm labor is always a concern, especially in the final trimester.
If you’re unsure whether or not what you’re experiencing is Braxton Hicks contractions, contact your health care provider.
In addition, contact your provider right away if you experience these symptoms in addition to cramping:
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting
- Leaking of fluid or wetness
- Changes to your baby’s movements
- Real labor contractions
[Also read “When Should I Worry About Cramping During Pregnancy.”]
How can I manage Braxton Hicks contractions?
“Usually when you hydrate, empty your bladder and rest, they will subside a bit or go away completely,” Pearson said.
There are also other things you can do to feel more comfortable, including:
- Eat a snack
- Take a warm (not hot!), relaxing bath
- Read a book
- Get a prenatal massage
- Change positions (laying down if you’ve been on your feet or taking a walk if you’ve been sitting for a while)
Braxton Hicks contractions are a common and normal part of pregnancy. They won’t harm you or your baby in any way.
Talk to your health care provider about your symptoms and concerns, and don’t forget to keep up with your prenatal appointments.
“Prenatal care and education (like classes) are so important in empowering pregnant people to be good advocates for themselves and their babies,” Pearson said. “Knowledge is power. Education also cuts down on the fear of the unknown.”
Sign up for in-person and virtual childbirth and parenting classes.