Birth prep

Braxton Hicks: What Are They and When Should You Call Your Doctor?

Women with Braxton Hicks contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions can be worrisome during pregnancy: are they innocuous or a sign of early labor? Both Braxton Hicks contractions and true labor contractions involve uterine contractions, so the worry is definitely understandable. But, there are several key differences between the harmless Braxton Hicks contractions and the signs of going into labor. This post will cover:

  • What are Braxton Hicks contractions and what do they feel like?
  • Why do they happen?
  • How are they different from contractions during labor?
  • When should you see a doctor about them?

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are spontaneous tightening or contractions of the uterine muscles and are unrelated to labor. They’re often called “false labor” pains because while they feel like a contraction, they don’t cause the cervix to dilate, so they’re not actually indicative of going into labor.

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

Some women may experience them as a tightening in the abdomen, or a similar pain to menstrual cramps. Usually the pain is felt higher up in the abdomen, whereas true labor contractions are felt deeper and lower in the pelvic area.

Why do Braxton Hicks contractions happen?

Some claim that these contractions help prepare or tone the uterine muscles for labor. But, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. Without scientific peer-reviewed publications to back up these “expert” claims, these are merely speculations about why these contractions happen, not evidence for them.

Others claim these contractions help soften the cervix, which could help prepare the cervix for opening during labor, but again, there isn’t any scientific evidence to back this up. It’s an interesting hypothesis that definitely warrants further research.

Until more research is done, here’s the bottom line: uterine muscles don’t only contract during labor. They also contract during the menstrual cycle and even during sex. Braxton Hicks contractions seem to be just another form of normal uterine contractions that can happen outside of labor and are perfectly normal to experience during pregnancy.

woman in bed

What causes Braxton Hicks contractions to occur?

While research doesn’t seem to understand why these contractions happens, here is a list of common causes of them:

  • Dehydration
  • Sexual activity
  • Full bladder
  • Physical activity

How can Braxton Hicks contractions be treated?

Generally, these contractions tend to go away when you change up your activity from whatever you were doing when they started. So, if you were walking or in the middle of a pregnancy workout, and then these false labor pains started, try resting. If you were resting when they started, try going on a walk. Also, be sure to stay hydrated and don’t wait to go to the bathroom.

What is the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and labor?

Because both Braxton Hicks contractions and labor contractions involve a tightening of the uterus, it can be easy to confuse the two. Here’s how to tell the difference between these contractions:

Braxton Hicks Contractions Labor Contractions
  • Resolve with changing position or activity
  • Persists regardless of activity
  • Irregular frequency, no rhythm
  • Regular frequency
  • Can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes
  • Gradually will increase in length, lasting between 30 – 90 seconds depending on stage of labor
  • Don’t escalate in intensity, generally weak
  • Progressively increase in intensity, will become very sharp and strong
  • Localized in an isolated area of the abdomen, typically higher in the abdomen)
  • Felt throughout the abdomen, lower back, and pelvic areas

When in pregnancy do Braxton Hicks contractions occur?

These contractions start happening during the second trimester but become most prominent during the third trimester.

Should all women expect Braxton Hicks contractions?

As normal as it is to feel Braxton Hicks contractions, it’s just as normal to not feel them at all! Research is still trying to work out why this is the case, but there is some anecdotal evidence that these false labor pains are more noticeable and intense with additional pregnancies, so it seems possible to not experience them with your first baby and potentially experience them in future pregnancies.

Does the baby feel Braxton Hicks contractions?

Another speculation about why these contractions happen is that they help shuttle more blood to the placenta. But, a small study of 16 women from 1992 found that during Braxton Hicks contractions, placental blood flow was actually temporarily reduced, and despite this momentary loss of circulation, fetal blood flow to the heart was not affected, as measured by Doppler ultrasound. So, based on this small study, there isn’t strong indication that they harm the fetus based on those measures, but this is definitely an area that requires more research.

Should I call my doctor about Braxton Hicks contractions?

If you experience any of the following symptoms with these contractions, contact your doctor immediately:

  • Pregnancy discharge with blood or continuously leaking
  • Strong contractions that are getting closer together and more frequent
  • Contractions that are so painful that you can’t walk
  • Noticeable decrease in fetal movement


Aarthi Gobinath, PhD

Aarthi Gobinath earned her PhD in neuroscience from the University of British Columbia. Her research covers the ways that stress affects the male and female brain differently.

She tackled the issue of sex bias in research by looking at why standard treatments for depression don't always work in the case of postpartum depression. Her work has been covered by Vice and Massive Science.

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