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Braxton Hicks or true labour contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are common towards the end of a pregnancy, but are harmless and painless and not a sign of going into labour.

Braxton Hicks contractions are also known as false labour pains or practice contractions.

These irregular contractions of the womb may begin as early as the second trimester, but are more common during the third trimester.

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

Braxton Hicks contractions can be described as a tightening in the abdomen that comes and goes. These contractions are typically not painful and do not happen at regular intervals. They do not get closer together, do not increase with walking, do not increase in how long they last and do not feel stronger over time, as contractions do when you are in true labour.

What do true labour contractions feel like?

The way a true labour contraction feels is different for each woman and it may feel different from one pregnancy to the next. Labour contractions cause discomfort or a dull ache in your back and/or lower abdomen, along with pressure in the pelvis. Some women may also feel pain in their sides and thighs. Some women describe contractions as strong menstrual cramps, while others describe them as strong waves that feel like diarrhoea cramps.

How do I know when contractions indicate I am in true labour?

To work out if the contractions you are feeling are the real thing and you're going into labour, ask yourself the following questions:

Contraction characteristics

False labour

True labour

How often do the contractions happen?

Contractions are often irregular and do not get closer together.

Contractions come at regular intervals and last about 30-70 seconds. As time goes on, they get closer together.

Do they change with movement?

Contractions may stop when you walk or rest, or may even stop if you change positions.

Contractions continue despite movement or changing positions.

How strong are they?

Contractions are usually weak and do not get much stronger. Or they may be strong at first and then get weaker.

Contractions steadily increase in strength.

Where do you feel the pain?

Contractions are usually only felt in the front of the abdomen or pelvic region.

Contractions usually start in the lower back and move to the front of the abdomen.

If you have signs of true labour, the NHS says you should contact your hospital maternity unit - or midwife if you are planning a home birth - immediately. If you're unsure, call your hospital or midwife anyway. The NHS also advises, when you are around 36 weeks pregnant, to make sure you have all your important telephone numbers handy in case labour starts. If you are experiencing any of the following you may be in true labour.

  • Contractions (tightening of the muscles in the uterus which cause discomfort or a dull ache in the lower abdomen) every 10 minutes or more than 5 contractions in an hour.
  • Regular tightening or pain in your back or lower abdomen.
  • Pressure in the pelvis or vagina.
  • Menstrual-like cramps.
  • Bleeding.
  • Fluid leak.
  • Flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.

In contrast, if you are having Braxton Hicks contractions, you really don't need to do anything unless they are causing you discomfort. If they are making you uncomfortable try the following:

  • Take a walk. False labour contractions often stop when you change position or get up and walk.
  • Get some sleep or rest.
  • Relax.
  • Drink water or juice.
  • Eat a snack or small meal.
  • Get a massage.
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