Dossier: Pregnancy

Braxton Hicks and false labour: preparing for the birth

Halfway through pregnancy, your belly may harden for a short time and you might feel a pulling sensation. These are Braxton Hicks contractions, which is your body’s way of preparing for real contractions and the birth.

Text: Helwi Braunmiller; photo: Unsplash

The first contractions can be a bit scary, because they start as early as halfway through your pregnancy, which is too early for your baby to be delivered. But don’t worry, these contractions are totally normal. Unlike in labour, the cervix doesn’t shorten or dilate. These Braxton Hicks or premonitory contractions are simply training the womb for the upcoming birth. Your muscles tense and then relax again. The contractions are triggered by various hormones, especially oestrogen, oxytocin and prostaglandins.

Common symptom: hardening of the belly

Braxton Hicks contractions often start around the 32nd week of pregnancy, and even earlier in any subsequent pregnancies. Some women don’t feel these contractions at all and only see them by chance on the cardiotocograph when they go to the gynaecologist for a check-up. Other women feel the practice contractions: unlike labour pains they aren’t painful, they are irregular and last less than half a minute.

The feeling you get is like tightening a wide belt. Your stomach hardens, tenses and may even take on an unusual shape. Sometimes the tension can be felt across the back and down your legs.

If your belly tightens very frequently, you should get some rest. Take a break and relax! If you’re still unsure, talk to your doctor or midwife. Many health insurers offer a telephone hotline exclusively for expectant mothers.

False labour: slowly preparing for the birth

Many mums-to-be feel the first false labour pains from the 36th week of pregnancy. These can last a little longer than Braxton Hicks contractions – up to a minute and over a period of up to three hours in regular intervals of more than 15 minutes. During these contractions women may also feel a pulling abdominal pain similar to menstrual pain, which can also radiate into the lower back.

During these contractions the baby’s head may sink lower into the true pelvis. This is often visible from the outside as the bump lowers. Women also often feel an uncomfortable sensation in their pelvic area or stabbing pains in the vagina.

Braxton Hicks contractions

  • Braxton Hicks contractions usually only last up to 30 seconds.
  • Relaxing and taking a warm bath can help reduce these early contractions (only take a bath if you’re not alone!). If the contractions get stronger when you’re in the bath, you’re experiencing real contractions.
  • Braxton Hicks contractions shouldn’t occur more than ten times a day or three times an hour.

False labour pains in the final month of pregnancy

  • False labour pains can last for up to a minute at a time
  • They may be felt over a period of up to three hours at intervals of more than 15 minutes.

Labour pains

  • Contractions that occur regularly every five to seven minutes lasting 30 to 60 seconds are real labour pains. Let your midwife know or go to the hospital.
  • Your waters breaking is a sure sign that the birth is imminent.