Was That a Braxton Hicks Contraction? How to Know

By Marisa Iallonardo
Reviewed by Alyssa Quimby, M.D.
July 26, 2023

You’re going about your day and feel sudden tightness in your belly that stops you in your tracks. Was that a labor contraction or are you having what’s known as a Braxton Hicks contraction? It might be hard to tell at times but there are some important differences.

“Braxton Hicks are irregular uterine contractions,” says Abdulla Al Khan, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn and director of maternal-fetal medicine and surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. And they don’t lead to labor.

He explains that Braxton Hicks contractions come and go occasionally. They don’t happen regularly or in a rhythmic pattern like labor contractions do.

Why Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Happen?

The reason for Braxton Hicks contractions is not totally clear. Researchers believe they’re “toning the uterine muscle” for delivery. You can think of them as your body getting you ready to give birth, says Al Khan.

When Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Start?

“Braxton Hicks contractions can start as early as week six, as your uterus grows to accommodate the baby,” says Kia Hollis, a certified nurse midwife at Mercy Medical Center’s Metropolitan OB/GYN in Baltimore. This is why some people feel cramping early in pregnancy, she adds.

“However, the more intense Braxton Hicks contractions are usually felt starting around the beginning of the third trimester, which is typically week 27 or 28,” Hollis says.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Braxton Hicks and Labor Contractions?

First, know what can cause Braxton Hicks to start. That can include exercise, being on your feet a lot, not drinking enough water, and sex, says Hollis. When you feel them happening, she recommends resting. Drinking water can help too. If they’re Braxton Hicks, they should eventually stop.

Also, notice how often you’re feeling the contractions. Braxton Hicks are irregular. So if your contractions keep happening regularly—say they’re happening every 10 minutes—this could be a sign that it’s actual labor, says Al Khan. If so, call your doctor or midwife.

Braxton Hicks contractions are typically not very intense or painful. If your contractions become painful enough that you’re unable to talk or need to breath deeply as they happen, these may be labor contractions.

If the contractions start to get more intense or if you notice other symptoms, like bleeding, leaking, pelvic pressure or back pain, call your provider. They can help determine what’s going on.

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