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What's the Difference Between "Real" Contractions and Braxton-Hicks?

I’m in my third pregnancy now, so I’ve had my share of both Braxton-Hicks (“fake”) contractions, and real contractions.  They are distinctively different.  But — especially your first time — it can be hard to tell which is which.  I was inspired to write this post because this time around, I’ve had a lot of Braxton-Hicks, starting rather early on.  For me, at this point, it’s clear that they’re not real.  But for a mama in her last weeks of pregnancy, when she can’t wait to go into labor, it’s kind of crucial to know the difference!

So, how do you tell the difference between Braxton-Hicks and “real” contractions?

First of all, Braxton-Hicks contractions, while “fake” in the sense that they are not actively dilating your cervix, are otherwise very real.  As your pregnancy progresses, your uterus must stretch to accomodate the baby, placenta, fluid, etc.  It also must “practice” contracting so that when the time comes, it’s ready to cause real dilation.  Braxton Hicks are normal and necessary to the pregnancy.

Although these start very early on — usually in the first trimester — many women don’t notice them until in the second or third, especially with their first baby.  Partially it is because they are fairly weak, and partially it’s because they don’t know what they’re feeling.  I didn’t feel them until my last few weeks with both my first and second baby; I started to feel them at 14 weeks this time!  (No…feeling them late doesn’t mean you’ll go overdue; and feeling them early doesn’t mean you’ll have preterm labor.)

A Braxton-Hicks contraction is an overall tightness or slight cramping feeling.  You may feel them very high up, or you may feel them across the middle.  They kind of start out of nowhere (often brought on by lots of motion or being active), last a short time, and go away.  There is no slow worsening or “peak” to them, and they don’t really cause pain.  Just a noticeable tightness.  They also tend to go away if you drink water or sit down for awhile.

Real contractions, on the other hand, feel very different.  You’ll feel them very low, either in front or back, sometimes wrapping around.  It’s a serious tightness that grows in intensity, peaks, and drops off again.  They don’t go away or change if you move around, sit down, drink water, etc.  If you feel this and you are before 37 weeks — call your doctor immediately!

How were Braxton-Hicks contractions different from “real” ones for you?  How did you know the difference?

Top image by deanj

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