What Do Braxton-Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

Medically Reviewed By Joshua Copel, MD
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Braxton-Hicks contractions are cyclical tightenings of the abdomen. They can occur in pregnant people during the second or third trimester of pregnancy. Experts also use the terms “false labor” and “practice labor” to describe the phenomenon. Braxton-Hicks contractions indicate that the uterus is preparing for true labor. They are a normal part of pregnancy and are present in most pregnancies.

Read on to learn more about Braxton-Hicks contractions, including when they occur, how they are different from real labor, and how to ease discomfort.

What are Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Pregnant woman lying on her side on couch
Mosuno/Stocksy United

Braxton-Hicks contractions are sudden contractions and relaxations of the uterus. They do not indicate a disorder. They are normal exercises your body performs as it prepares for labor.

In fact, studies suggest that the contractions actually have a positive effect on the body. Specifically, they help promote blood flow to the placenta and boost the oxygen supply to it.

Because Braxton-Hicks contractions tighten the uterine muscles, you may experience mild discomfort. You may even think that you are in labor. However, the sensation typically goes away after a few seconds.

What do Braxton-Hicks contractions feel like?

Each pregnant person experiences Braxton-Hicks contractions differently.

When they begin, the contractions usually feel like a painless tightening sensation across the belly. If you place your hands on your abdomen, you may feel your uterus becoming hard during the contraction.

Typically, the sensation comes and goes and lasts only about 30 seconds each time.

If you are not sure if you are experiencing Braxton-Hicks contractions or true labor, contact your obstetrician or midwife.

How are Braxton-Hicks contractions different from actual labor pain?

Braxton-Hicks contractions may feel a lot like labor toward the end of pregnancy. However, they are only a predictor of labor and do not indicate labor themselves.

The following table illustrates the differences between Braxton-Hicks contractions and actual labor.

Braxton-Hicks contractionsActual labor
DilationBraxton-Hicks contractions do not dilate the cervix.Labor dilates the cervix to make it easier for the baby to come out.
PredictabilityBraxton-Hicks contractions come and go at irregular times.Contractions during labor can become very regular.
DurationBraxton-Hicks contractions take about 30 seconds to dissipate.Contractions during labor can last up to 70 seconds at a time.
Intensity and frequencyBraxton-Hicks contractions do not increase in intensity and frequency.Contractions during labor can increase in intensity and frequency. They get stronger and come more often just before childbirth.
PainBraxton-Hicks contractions typically do not cause pain but may be uncomfortable.Labor presents as a cramping sensation and an achy feeling in the abdomen, groin, and back.

When can Braxton-Hicks contractions occur?

Braxton-Hicks contractions can begin as early as 6 weeks into pregnancy. However, most people do not report experiencing them until the second or third trimester of pregnancy (between week 14 and week 40).

Braxton-Hicks contractions become more frequent in the final stages of pregnancy. They may recur every 10–20 minutes.

This may be a sign of pre-labor, which is the stage of pregnancy just before true labor.

What causes Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Braxton-Hicks contractions result from the tightening and loosening of the muscle fibers that line the wall of the uterus. The reason this happens is unclear.

However, experts believe it is the body’s way of preparing for delivery.

What are common triggers for Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Some research suggests that certain circumstances can trigger Braxton-Hicks contractions. These include:

  • sexual intercourse
  • dehydration
  • having a full bladder
  • physical activity

These situations create a need for increased blood flow to the placenta, thus causing the uterus to contract and relax.

How can you ease the pain of Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Braxton-Hicks contractions are not

typically painful. However, they may cause some discomfort. 

To ease this discomfort, try:

  • lying down on your side
  • going for a walk
  • practicing a breathing exercise
  • taking a warm bath
  • having a massage
  • hydrating by drinking water

If the discomfort persists after trying these exercises, contact your obstetrician or midwife.

When should you call your doctor or midwife?

In rare cases, serious symptoms may accompany Braxton-Hicks contractions. In such cases, it is vital to contact your obstetrician or midwife for evaluation.

Such symptoms may include:

  • contractions that become more intense and more frequent 
  • persistent pain or pressure in the pelvis or abdomen
  • vaginal bleeding 
  • a general feeling of sickness
  • leaking fluid from the vagina

If your pregnancy is at 37 weeks or earlier, contractions may indicate premature labor. Contact your obstetrician or midwife right away if contractions become more intense or do not dissipate.

Other frequently asked questions

These are some other questions that people often ask about Braxton-Hicks contractions. The answers have been reviewed by Dr. Joshua Copel, M.D.

Do frequent Braxton-Hicks contractions mean labor soon?

Braxton-Hicks contractions are the body’s way of preparing for labor, but they do not indicate the onset of true labor. Braxton-Hicks contractions may occur more frequently later in pregnancy, but they are not the same as real labor contractions. It is not possible to use Braxton-Hicks contractions to predict exactly when true labor will begin.

How long can Braxton-Hicks contractions last?

Braxton-Hicks contractions tend to dissipate after about 30 seconds, whereas true labor contractions can last 1 minute or longer.

Why am I having so many Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Certain factors can trigger Braxton-Hicks contractions, including sexual intercourse, physical activity, dehydration, and having a full bladder.

When should I be concerned about Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Contact your obstetrician or midwife if you experience contractions that become more intense or

do not dissipate, if you feel persistent pain or pressure, or if you have vaginal bleeding.

If you are not sure if you are experiencing Braxton-Hicks contractions or true labor, contact your doctor or midwife.

Summary

Braxton-Hicks contractions are cyclical tightenings of the abdomen. They indicate that the uterus is preparing for true labor. 

Experts say that most pregnant people experience these contractions during the second or third trimester of pregnancy. The sensation typically comes and goes at irregular times and lasts about 30 seconds each time.

In some ways, Braxton-Hicks contractions feel like true labor. However, there are many differences between the two. For example, unlike labor contractions, Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually painless. Also, Braxton-Hicks contractions do not increase in intensity, but contractions during labor do.

If your contractions cause you concern, contact your obstetrician or midwife for an evaluation.

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Medical Reviewer: Joshua Copel, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 May 18
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