What are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

By Michelle Johnson
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As a woman reaches the end of her pregnancy, she often grows increasingly excited about meeting her new baby. However, Braxton Hicks contractions, named for the English doctor John Braxton Hicks who first identified them in 1872, often confuse the question of when the "big day" will finally arrive. They can send first-time and even experienced moms to the hospital, afraid they are experiencing preterm labor or that real labor has begun. A proper understanding of Braxton Hicks contractions can help you determine whether your contractions are the real thing or just the "practice contractions," preparing you for labor.

Characteristics

Braxton Hicks contractions, which can last from 15 seconds two minutes, help ready your uterus for childbirth. They may start as early as six weeks, but you won't usually start feeling them -- if you do at all -- until the second half of your pregnancy. Normally, Braxton Hicks contractions are painless and cause no changes to your cervix. Toward the end of your pregnancy, though, they may start becoming more uncomfortable and can make your cervix start to soften, thin and dilate. During a Braxton Hicks contraction, your belly may feel firm and contort into a strange, sometimes pointy, shape.

Causes

Pregnancy hormones, which are readying your body for labor, ultimately cause Braxton Hicks contractions. Because your body increases its preparations for childbirth as the end of your pregnancy approaches, most Braxton Hicks contractions occur in the third trimester, and the contractions become more intense and frequent the closer you get your baby's birthday. During this time, a number of things can trigger Braxton Hicks contractions, including dehydration, intercourse, touching your abdomen, a full bladder and too much activity by either you or your baby.

Distinguishing from Labor

Braxton Hicks contractions are mild contractions that occur irregularly. True labor contractions, in contrast, gradually become stronger, more frequent and closer together. Changing position can slow Braxton Hicks contractions but not true labor. Braxton Hicks contractions remain focused in the front of your belly, while true labor contractions begin in your abdomen and spread to your back, or begin in your back and spread to your abdomen. Telling the two apart can be difficult, especially late in a pregnancy when Braxton Hicks contractions may become more uncomfortable, so call your doctor or midwife if you experience any contractions that concern you.

Treatment

To stop Braxton Hicks contractions, drink a glass or two of water, milk or herbal tea to reduce dehydration. Change your position. If the contractions started while you were resting, take a short walk. If you were active, sit or lie down for a while. Relax with a warm bath, but limit it to less than 30 minutes. Use the opportunity to practice the relaxation and breathing techniques you plan to use during labor. Call your doctor or midwife for advice if your efforts to slow your Braxton Hicks contractions aren't successful.

About the Author

Based in southern Idaho, Michelle Johnson started writing in 1991. Her work has been published in the science fiction and fantasy journal, "Extrapolation." Johnson holds a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and a Master of Arts in fantasy literature, both from Hofstra University in New York.