Braxton Hicks vs Real Labor Contractions: How You Can Tell the Difference
It can be confusing trying to figure out if the tightening you’re feeling across your abdomen is a Braxton Hicks contraction or a true labor contraction.
Good news, you’re not alone! As a labor nurse, I see many moms come to the hospital thinking they are in labor when they are really having Braxton Hicks contractions.
First off, what is a contraction? Your uterus is a big muscle that your baby lives in. A contraction is that uterine muscle flexing and tightening. Feel your bicep muscle, now flex your bicep and feel again. See how it feels firm now? That is what your uterus feels like during a contraction.
So how do you know when you are having labor contractions or Braxton Hicks contractions? There are a few ways to tell the difference.
What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?
Braxton Hicks contractions are considered the “warm up” contractions during pregnancy. These contractions are tightening of the uterus that are usually not as painful as labor contractions, and don’t cause cervical change.
These contractions are usually felt at the top of the uterus and last about 30-60 seconds, although they can last longer. Most moms characterize them as uncomfortable, but not painful.
Unfortunately, they can happen as early as the second trimester and continue all the way up to delivery.
Some characteristics of Braxton Hicks contractions are that they are:
- Irregular– they come at random intervals and you won’t be able to predict when they will start.
- Worse with activity– the more you do the more you may feel these Braxton Hicks contractions.
- More frequent with a full bladder– sometimes if the bladder is full it can cause Braxton Hicks contractions.
- Better with rest and water- if you take a rest and the contractions feel better or go away then they’re likely not labor contractions.
- Not going to get stronger or more intense- Braxton Hicks contractions usually stay the same intensity and don’t become more painful. Eventually they will start to taper off.
These contractions can be pesky because you may be uncomfortable, but you’re not in labor. There isn’t a whole lot you can do to stop these contractions besides taking it easy, changing positions, and rehydrating.
What True Labor Contractions Feel like
Labor contractions are contractions that occur at regular intervals, become more intense, and result in cervical change. No matter what you do, the contractions don’t stop or become less intense.
These contractions may radiate from your back to the front and have an increased overall intensity compared to Braxton Hicks.
The general rule of thumb is that you can get an idea of how strong your contractions are based on how tight your uterus gets.
- Mild contractions: When you feel the top of your uterus, it feels like the tip of your nose. These contractions will be uncomfortable, but you can usually walk and talk through them.
- Moderate contractions: The top of your uterus is a little tighter than mild contractions and feels like your chin. You may have difficulty talking through these contractions and may have to stop and breath through them.
Strong contractions: These contractions make your uterus feel like your forehead. They are a lot more painful and uncomfortable. Most moms that are having strong contractions can’t talk through them and can focus on nothing else but the contraction.
When to Go to the Hospital:
It can be tricky deciding on when to go to the hospital for contraction pains.
You should go get checked out if:
- You are contracting regularly, about every 2-3 minutes.
- Contractions are becoming more intense and feeling stronger.
- You can’t sit still during the contractions because they are painful.
- You feel a gush of fluid or a constant trickle of fluid that you can’t control.
You should avoid going to the hospital if:
- Contractions are irregular and unpredictable.
- You can tell you are having contractions, but they aren’t uncomfortable.
- You lost your mucous plug but haven’t felt any contractions.
When in doubt, call your provider and go get checked out! Especially if you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and having regular contractions. Your provider can help determine if it’s baby time or if you are just getting warmed up for labor.
This article was put together using information from the following resource:
- Klossner, N. (2006). Introductory Maternity Nursing. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Meet the Author:
Hey there, I’m Anna! I have been a labor and delivery nurse for four years and am passionate about mamas knowing their choices during labor. I have 3 kiddos, with baby number 4 on the way, so I know how scary labor can be. My goal is to help moms achieve the labor they want and feel comfortable with the process. You can check out more at MommyLaborNurse.com.