Question: I’m almost 21 weeks pregnant. I had a tightening in my lower abdomen for a few seconds, then it was over, but it hasn’t happened since. I think it may have been a Braxton Hicks contraction. What do they feel like and how early can you start to feel them?
Answer: You are correct—you probably had a contraction. Let me tell you about normal contractions, and signs that you can watch for to be sure you aren’t having preterm labor (which this doesn’t sound like at all!).
Contractions usually feel like a balling up or tightening sensation over your lower abdomen, or sometimes in your back. They might feel a little like menstrual cramps. Up to a few contractions an hour can be normal. One way to figure out if this is a contraction is to feel your lower abdomen with your hand. During a contraction, your uterus will become hard (usually for less than a minute) and then will relax and return to normal. You can actually feel your tummy get hard and tell when you are having a contraction and when it is over. If only part of your uterus gets hard, that is probably the baby moving and not a contraction.
Braxton-Hicks contractions are painless normal contractions in the second half of pregnancy that don’t cause your cervix to open. Occasionally, though, even painless contractions can be a sign of preterm labor.
Here are some signs that should get your attention:
- Contractions coming more than four to six times an hour for a few hours (even if painless)
- Contractions that last several hours after exercise or sex (a shorter duration of contractions after these activities is usually normal)
- Any vaginal bleeding before 35 weeks
- Leaking of fluid (like you might have broken your water)
If any of those symptoms occur, call your doctor or midwife to see if you need to be evaluated for preterm labor. If you are just having a few sporadic painless contractions, don’t worry about it at all. That’s just your body practicing for your own personal Labor Day.