Not all pregnant women feel Braxton Hicks contractions, but for those who do it can be quite alarming. Particularly if you don’t know what to expect! The cramping can leave many women scrambling to the hospital thinking that premature labour has begun.
For some women it’s simply a mild pressure, for others it’s unnoticeable. As with everything pregnancy related, every woman is different and there is no way to predict what kind of experience you will have with Braxton Hicks, if you experience them at all.
Let’s look at some basic information about Braxton Hicks as well as answering some of the most frequently asked questions…
What are Braxton Hicks contractions?
Braxton Hicks contractions refers to the tightening of the uterus; believed to prepare the body for birth. Childbirth is the greatest endurance feat your uterus will ever undergo and just like any athlete preparing for such an event, there’s a bit of practise needed! They can begin as early as six weeks into pregnancy; but will only be felt once the pregnancy has progressed, usually the second trimester is the earliest that they can be felt. Most often, they are felt in the third trimester. Not all women will know they are even having them.
It is believed that Braxton Hicks prepare the cervix for effacement and tones the uterine muscles in preparation for birth. It is also believed that they aid blood flow to the placenta.
Braxton Hicks can be aggravated by dehydration, stress or too much physical activity. Sex can also trigger Braxton Hicks contractions in later pregnancy as can a full bladder. The American Pregnancy Association says that even someone touching the baby bump can aggravate Braxton Hicks!
What do they feel like?
It’s different for every woman and even different between pregnancies, but generally they feel like a tightening of the area around your bump. Most women describe their bellies going rock hard as they feel the Braxton Hicks contraction. For some, they can be painful, for others a mild discomfort. This is one of the reasons that women end up making the trip to the hospital thinking they are in labour.
Most of the literature says that they should not be painful, but in practise some women do find them to be painful. They can last between a few seconds and a few minutes. They become more noticeable with each successive pregnancy and also become more noticeable (and potentially painful) as the pregnancy progresses.
Here are few descriptions from women who have experienced them:
– “More annoying than painful”
– “I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me!”
– “Like HARDCORE period cramps”
– “Like my guts are being squeezed”
– “They don’t hurt at all, but my bump contracts and gets really tight”
As you can see there is a huge variety in the experience of Braxton Hicks contractions. One thing that most descriptions have in common is the feeling that the belly is hardening. These contractions can also be seen by others, often the belly changes shape while it’s happening.
How do you know the difference between Braxton Hicks and real labour? When do I call the doctor?
It can be difficult to know the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and the real thing, especially if it is your first pregnancy. Many women end up visiting the hospital or calling their doctors because they are unsure.
The main difference between Braxton Hicks and real labour is that in real labour the contractions become more painful and regular with time. Sometimes the only way to know for sure is to have your doctor or midwife check your cervix. There are a few situations where a trip to the hospital or your doctor is necessary:
– If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and the contractions are becoming more frequent and intense as time progresses
– you have more than 4 contractions in an hour (some doctors say more than 6 in an hour)
– there is an increase in vaginal discharge; mucous, blood or even watery discharge
– the contractions include back pain
– the pain is extreme or unmanageable
If you have passed the 37 week mark and the contractions are becoming more frequent and painful, you can assume that labour may have begun. Follow the instructions your doctor has given about when to head to the hospital.
Make use of a contraction timer app on your phone and keep track of how often the contractions are happening and how they are progressing.
Finding relief from Braxton Hicks
– Change your position; sometimes a simple change of position can alleviate the cramping. If you are sitting, lie down. If you are standing, sit down.
– Make sure your bladder is empty.
– It’s been found that Braxton Hicks contractions can be relieved by light exercise. Take a little walk and see if your cramping doesn’t ease up.
– Drink a large glass of water. Often Braxton Hicks can be aggravated by dehydration. Be sure to drink lots of water and be vigilant about keeping your fluid intake up.
– A prenatal support belt might help, by supporting the muscles and ligaments well they will have to work just a little bit less and may be less prone to Braxton Hicks.
– Increasing your dietary intake of calcium and magnesium may help the muscles to relax and reduce the number of contractions. If your Braxton Hicks are very bothersome, you might want to consider taking an extra calcium and magnesium supplement. Check with your healthcare provider before considering taking any additional supplements.
– Take a warm (not hot) bath. The warmth will relax the muscles and may ease the pain.
– Practise some of the breathing techniques/pain relief ideas you’ve learnt in your prenatal classes.
– If you are experiencing frequent painful Braxton Hicks, your doctor might want to check and see if you have a bladder infection. This can be easily treated and can alleviate the contractions.
If you are in any doubt at all, a trip to the hospital/your doctor is your best bet. Sure it can be a little embarrassing to head down to the maternity ward prematurely, but it’s always best to check in with your doctor if you are having pain that isn’t resolving with self-help measures. A lot of sources indicate that Braxton Hicks shouldn’t be extremely painful, but it seems like for some women they are and there is no cause for concern.
If the pain is extreme you might get some pain relief, be given medications to slow contractions or even be put on bed rest if it looks like premature labour instead of Braxton Hicks. Generally Braxton Hicks are harmless and just another pregnancy woe. But, if in doubt, please trust your intuition and get it checked out!