Braxton Hicks Contractions: The Prequel to Labor

Pregnant Mother holds belly, Braxton Hicks Contractions

Braxton what?! If you’re on this page, chances are you’ve heard whispers about Braxton Hicks contractions and today, we’re going to demystify them for you. 

What are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions, also charmingly known as “practice contractions,” are the dress rehearsal before the real show. They’re your uterus’s way of flexing its muscles in preparation for labor and delivery. Unlike labor contractions, which start and continue until your baby is born, Braxton Hicks are more like practice rounds. 

Where Does the Name Come From? 

These contractions are named after John Braxton Hicks, a British doctor who lived in the 19th century and practiced obstetrics. Dr. Hicks is credited with first describing this phenomenon in 1872. So, the name “Braxton Hicks contractions” is a tribute to Dr. Hicks. Cheers to good old chap Dr. Braxton Hicks! 

What do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel like? 

They feel like the muscles across your belly are tightening or hardening and then relaxing. They’re not typically painful but can be uncomfortable. It’s as if your uterus is giving you a gentle but firm nudge to remind you it’s there and getting ready.

How are They Different from Labor Contractions? 

Here’s the key difference: Braxton Hicks contractions tend to be irregular and don’t follow a consistent pattern. They might come and go without rhyme or reason, and they often go away with rest or a change in activity. In contrast, labor contractions are regular, intensify over time, and do not go away. Labor contractions, by definition, are contractions that cause cervical change. Once the cervix starts to dilate and open, labor has begun and each contraction contributes to the end goal of bringing your baby out. 

When Do They Happen and How Long Can They Last?

Braxton Hicks contractions can start as early as the second trimester but are more commonly felt in the third trimester. They tend to increase in frequency and intensity as you get closer to your due date. They are usually short-lived and may last anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes but don’t typically persist for an extended period. If they do linger or become more frequent, it’s a good idea to consult with your care provider, just to be on the safe side.

Some women say they feel them earlier and more intensely in subsequent pregnancies. On a personal note, I didn’t notice them at all in my first pregnancy, but they were prominent in my 2nd and 3rd pregnancies. 

Why Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Happen?

Here are there possible causes for these contractions, all of which serve an important purpose in the journey of pregnancy: 

  • Uterine Muscle Training: They are thought to help tone and strengthen the uterine muscles for effective labor. Think of Braxton Hicks contractions as your uterus hitting the gym before the big competition.
  • Cervical Changes: They do not cause dilation but they may play a role in softening and thinning your cervix (also known as effacement), which is necessary for the cervix to dilate during labor.
  • Blood Flow: Braxton Hicks contractions may help maintain blood flow to the placenta and baby. 
  • Practice for You: These contractions offer an opportunity to experience what contractions feel like without the intensity of actual labor. This can help you get familiar with your body’s signals.

Strategies for Relief

Okay, so you’ve got these “practice contractions” – what can you do to ease the discomfort and carry on with your day?

  • Stay Hydrated: Dehydration can sometimes trigger Braxton Hicks contractions, so make sure you’re sipping water throughout the day.
  • Change Positions: If you’re feeling the squeeze, changing positions can often help. If you’ve been sitting, stand up and stretch a bit, or take a short walk. If you’ve been active, maybe it’s time to put your feet up for a rest.
  • Practice Relaxation: This is an opportunity to practice your deep breathing and relaxation exercises that you learned from your doulas in your birth class. Try slow, deep breaths to help your body and mind relax.
  • Warm Bath: Get in a warm bath to relax and loosen up your muscles. 
  • Time to Make a Call: If you’re ever in doubt or experiencing any unusual symptoms along with the contractions (like bleeding or excessive pelvic pressure), contact your care provider. 

So, there you have it. Braxton Hicks contractions are a natural part of the pregnancy process, getting you ready for the main event. Don’t be surprised if they make cameo appearances in your pregnancy journey. While they might catch you off guard, they’re usually nothing to worry about. Your body is getting closer to welcoming your little one into the world! 

About Christie Collbran

Christie believes in helping women recognize their own inner wisdom, strength and power. Having served as President of the Tampa Bay Birth Network for six years and with ten years serving families as a birth doula, she has a reputation for leadership, dedication and compassion. A childbirth educator, certified lactation counselor as well as a certified doula, she makes a point of ensuring mothers and their partners understand all their birthing options and what to expect on their journey.> keep reading