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Braxton Hicks Contractions vs. True Labor

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Braxton Hicks contractions are the unpredictable, sporadic and usually non-rhythmical contractions that occur during pregnancy. So how do you know the difference between Braxton Hicks and real labor contractions?

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

The term originated in 1872 when an English doctor named John Braxton Hicks described the contractions that occur before real labor. Also known as “false labor” or “practice contractions” these contractions can begin as early as the second trimester but are more common during the third trimester.

The intensity of Braxton Hicks contractions varies between approximately 5-25 mm Hg (a measure of pressure). For comparison, during true labor the intensity of a contraction is between 40-60 mm Hg in the beginning of the active phase.

Braxton Hicks contractions are not considered true labor because they do not cause cervical change. Remember – if your contractions do not increase in intensity or frequency you are likely experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions. Unlike real contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions are:

  • Irregular in intensity
  • Infrequent
  • Unpredictable
  • Non-rhythmic

For the majority of pregnancies, the Braxton Hicks contractions are tolerable and not disruptive of day-to-day activities. But for some pregnancies, they are very disruptive because of the pain, discomfort and lack of sleep, even causing trips to Labor & Delivery to rule out labor. Fortunately, these types of Braxton Hicks contractions are near the end of pregnancy and short-lived.

How can you alleviate Braxton Hicks contractions?

There is no “tried and true” method that works for everyone. If you are experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions try:

  • Changing positions. You can lie down if you have been standing, or go for a walk if you have been sitting or laying
  • Taking a warm bath for 30 minutes or less
  • Drinking water (sometimes contractions may be brought on by dehydration)

Baby on board? Check out for resources to help guide you through the next nine months.

How will I know if it’s true labor?

It is usually suggested that women determine if the contractions are regular in frequency, intensity and duration. For example, it’s not true labor if:

  • Contractions are every 10 minutes, then 20 minutes
  • You can laugh and talk through a contraction, but then the next one brings you to tears
  • One contraction lasts two minutes and another lasts 20 seconds.

If you are experiencing contractions, time the duration and the time between contractions. It’s time to call Labor & Delivery for further instructions and come in for evaluation once contractions are regular in frequency and:

  • Occurring less than four minutes apart
  • Regular in duration- each lasting 40 seconds or more
  • And regular in intensity and getting stronger by the minute

Remember – Braxton Hicks contractions are a normal physiologic event during pregnancy. Most of the time they are tolerable and once you begin to experience them you are usually near the end of your pregnancy. Always consult your physician if you are concerned.

Editor's note - This blog was originally published on Sep 19, 2014 and has since been updated. 

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