Labor: Is It True Labor, False Labor, or Braxton Hicks Contractions

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Before "true" labor begins, you may have "false" labor pains, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions. These irregular uterine contractions are perfectly normal as long as they are not regular and they happen after 37 weeks. They may start to occur as early as the second trimester, although more commonly in the third trimester of pregnancy. They are your body's way of getting ready for the "real thing."

WARNING: Regular contractions before 37 weeks (more than 3 weeks before your due date) are premature and not normal. Anytime you feel contractions before 37 weeks you should let your doctor know right away.

What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

Braxton Hicks contractions can be described as tightening in the abdomen that comes and goes. These contractions 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 they do when you are in true labor. Braxton Hicks contractions do not happen more frequently than 1 or 2  per hour. If you are under 37 weeks pregnant and you have more than 3-4 contractions per hour, please call your doctor right away.  

What Do True Labor Contractions Feel Like?

The way a contraction feels is different for each woman and may feel different from one pregnancy to the next. Labor contractions cause discomfort or a dull ache in your back and 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 diarrhea cramps.

How Do I Know When Contractions Indicate I am in True Labor?

To figure out if the contractions you are feeling are the real thing, ask yourself the following questions.

Contraction Characteristics False Labor True Labor
How often do the contractions occur? 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 labor, contact your health care provider immediately. If you are experiencing any of the following you may be in true labor.

  • Contractions (tightening of the muscles in the uterus which cause discomfort or a dull ache in the lower abdomen) every 10 minutes or more 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 diarrhea.

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

It is essential to call your doctor at any time if you have:

  • Bright red vaginal bleeding.
  • Continuous leaking of fluid or wetness, or if your water breaks (can be felt as a "gushing" of fluid).
  • Strong contractions every 5 minutes for an hour.
  • Contractions that you are unable to "walk through."
  • A noticeable change in your baby's movement or if you feel less than 10 movements every two hours.
  • Any symptoms of contractions if you are not yet 37 weeks.