Braxton Hicks contractions: how to differentiate them from real contractions?

Especially for first-time mothers, pregnancy can be a complex process full of doubts and uncertainty. Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false, are usually interpreted as the imminent arrival of labor.

Both events are not related, since false contractions are a natural part of uterine physiology to adapt to the growth of the baby. Some external situations can influence its appearance, such as a hectic life or sex. We have prepared the following article so that you can identify them. Keep reading!

Braxton Hicks contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions are small movements of the uterine muscle which are sometimes perceived by the mother as the arrival of labor. When they occur repeatedly, they are usually a common reason for consultation.

They appear around week 28 and 30, crucial dates for the baby's development. Their main characteristic is the fact that they are painless and of low intensity, so the mother could perceive them as a small annoyance without much meaning.

Another element that allows them to be distinguished from labor contractions is that they are arrhythmic, so they do not usually repeat constantly in a given period of time.

Operation of the birthing motor

The motor of childbirth are all those elements that actively intervene to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. In turn, this last structure is made up of bone and muscle elements.

Both in Braxton Hicks contractions and in labor, the muscle fibers of the myometrium are stimulated. This is the middle layer of the uterus, which is thick and contains abundant muscle tissue. It has the ability to stay contracted for a significant period of time, which can be several minutes.

This tissue is sensitive to a hormone called oxytocin, which stimulates contraction. This substance can be administered as a medicine and, in fact, it is indicated after delivery to reduce the risk of postpartum bleeding or hemorrhage.

The actual contractions have the function of propelling the fetus through the birth canal.

Find out more: What are labor contractions like?

What Causes Braxton Hicks Contractions?

There does not seem to be a clear consensus on what can cause these contractions. As we have pointed out before, occur spontaneously from week 28 of pregnancy and they may become more frequent over time.

This corresponds to hormonal changes during pregnancy. However, there are some events that can promote the temporary onset of Braxton Hicks contractions.

Sex during pregnancy is a common cause. This is thought to be related to the secretion of small amounts of oxytocin after reaching orgasm and does not have any pathological connotations.

Moderate-intensity exercise, as well as plenty of activity at home or work during the day, may increase the frequency of these contractions. Dehydration too, especially in those mothers who are very active and who do not usually spend time taking care of their diet. On the other hand, not going to the bathroom and keeping the bladder full is associated with a mechanical stimulus.

How can I tell them apart from real contractions?

The most relevant aspects to consider for the differentiation are the onset date, the general sensation, the duration and intensity, the presence of pain and the immediate consequences. Let's see in detail:

  • Braxton Hicks contractions usually start from week 28, while those of labor start from week 37 almost always. If they happen earlier and the birth occurs, the baby would be preterm.
  • The real ones usually cause intense pain, in addition to other symptoms such as profuse sweating. False contractions are only perceived as uncomfortable.
  • While those of Braxton Hicks do not last more than about two minutes and irregularly, the actual contractions are constant over time and can last between 30 and 70 seconds.
  • Real contractions almost inevitably lead to labor. This can go on for several hours. In the case of false contractions, the uterus contracts without immediate consequences.

Signs that labor has started

Although Braxton Hicks contractions do not occur at the time of delivery, it is important to know how to detect other elements that condition this event. Physiological changes occur that can lead to birth about two weeks before your due date.

In fact, manipulation of the cervix is ​​one of them, due to the release of oxytocin that this produces. Therefore, both vaginal examination and sexual intercourse are carried out with caution in the last weeks.

One of the first events that signal the onset of labor is the expulsion of the mucous plug or the rupture of the chorioamniotic membranes. The first is characterized by a greenish or whitish discharge that may be accompanied by a little blood.

The rupture of membranes is usually abrupt and coincides with the loss of clear fluid, with a rather characteristic smell. At this point, actual contractions can start to occur relatively frequently, so seeing a doctor as soon as possible is ideal.

Sex in pregnancy can be associated with the appearance of Braxton Hicks contractions, especially around week 30.

Find out more: What is childbirth preparation and when is it done

Braxton Hicks contractions and complications

If complications arise during pregnancy, the doctor may suggest termination of the pregnancy in order to preserve maternal health. In turn, a cesarean section can be planned to prevent it from taking too long.

Braxton Hicks contractions do not determine your due date in any way. They are not directly related to this event and there is not much evidence linking the frequency of these false contractions with the probable date of birth.

Although it is a natural process and does not always require medical intervention to be successful, prenatal care is vital. There are many conditions (such as fetal distress) in which prenatal care can prevent permanent sequelae.

The constant presence of Braxton Hicks contractions is not related to complications in pregnancy or delivery. However, maternal concern is a justified reason for consultation, so in case of doubt it is best to go to a trusted specialist.

Prenatal care should never be interrupted. This includes performing ecosonograms and blood studies. Even if there are problems with the treating doctor, it is preferable to change the specialist before stopping going.

Braxton Hicks contractions are not the start of labor

False or Braxton Hicks contractions are often interpreted by new parents as the premature arrival of labor. This is not only incorrect, but the characteristics of these contractions are very different. Knowing the context of an actual birth helps prevent maternal concern and to make pregnancy a smoother process.