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Braxton Hicks Contractions & What You Need to Know About Signs of Real Labor

Pregnant Woman experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions and drinking a glass of water

Let’s take on the real beast: Braxton Hicks contractions. If this is your first pregnancy and you’re in the third trimester, you’ve probably already experienced some Braxton Hicks.

And, if you’re like me, you’ve gone running about, frantic and trying to figure out if you’re experiencing signs of real labor. Is this the real thing? Isn’t it a bit too soon? Are these just Braxton Hicks contractions?

What is really going on!?

Sound familiar? It’s okay! I speak from experience because that was me not too long ago. I totally understand where you’re at. So let’s talk about Braxton Hicks contractions and what you need to know about signs of real labor.

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Pregnant woman experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions and holding a glass of water

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are basically false labor. They’re contractions, but they don’t progress any further.

Think of Braxton Hicks as your body practicing for the real thing. It can feel pretty real and that’s why it gets confusing.

You can read more official info about Braxton Hicks here. (It’s boring but it’s the medical breakdown of Braxton Hicks.)

It’s important that you know I’m not a doctor. I’m a mom of 2. I did this twice. Those are my qualifications. I’m not licensed in any way to give you medical recommendations, so what you’re reading in this article are things my OB and nurses taught me, as well as what I personally experienced.

Always, always call your doctor if you have questions or concerns. It never hurts to ask!

Am I In Labor, or Are These Braxton Hicks Contractions?

If this is your first pregnancy, you might have already gone to the hospital thinking that your labor started. Or, you might be experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions right now and Googling furiously, trying to figure out “am I in labor?”

First, don’t panic. Baby isn’t going to fall out on the floor in the next 10 minutes if you don’t figure everything out right away. Just take a moment and breathe.

Figuring out if you’re experiencing false labor or if you’re truly seeing signs of labor can be tricky, but there are some clear signs to figure it out.

There are also some clever hacks to figure out if you’re actually in real labor or it’s just Braxton Hicks being sneaky.

I’m going to share those hacks with you (I used them myself), so keep reading!

The Difference Between Signs of Labor and Braxton Hicks

In the beginning, real labor and false labor pains feel very similar. So, how can you tell the difference?

The most obvious clue is that real labor doesn’t go away and Braxton Hicks contractions eventually do.

A common worry for first time mommies is that if they wait it out, they might wait too long to go to the hospital. I’m not an OB, but I’m going to repeat exactly what I was taught by my OB and the labor and delivery nurses.

It’s okay to wait. You don’t need to rush to the hospital as soon as you start experiencing contractions. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But more on that later.

Here’s how signs of labor and Braxton Hicks are similar:

  • In the beginning, they can feel identical
  • Your tummy tightens up during real labor and Braxton Hicks
  • They both can mimic a pattern (for a while, anyway)
  • Baby might respond the same way (movements, kicks, response to the tightening)

Here’s how signs of real labor and Braxton Hicks are different:

  • Braxton Hicks eventually stop
  • Braxton Hicks contractions usually don’t get closer together like real contractions do
  • Real labor progresses
  • Braxton Hicks contractions can be all over the map in pattern and duration
  • Real contractions may not follow a pattern either, but they will build in intensity
  • Each real contraction (typically but not always) will build, peak, and then fade
  • Braxton Hicks can mimic a real contraction but quite often don’t truly build up to a real peak very obviously

If this is your first pregnancy, it helps to get a contraction tracking app so you can follow the pattern of your contractions. If they’re Braxton Hicks contractions, you’ll most likely notice they don’t increase in intensity and tend to fade away. We’ll talk about this in a bit!

Signs of Labor (Real Labor):

If you’re really in labor, there are some clues that it’s go time and baby will be born soon.

Here are some clues that you’re experiencing labor:

  • Solid contractions that last for more than an hour
  • Contractions that last around or more than 30 seconds, less than 90 seconds and last longer over time
  • Contractions that get closer together as time goes on
  • Real contractions involve more of your back and tummy
  • Nausea (this doesn’t always happen)
  • Diarrhea (this doesn’t always happen)
  • Water breaking (you may not ever experience your water breaking at home

Trying to figure out if you’re truly in labor isn’t always easy and the signs can be a little different between mommies. Not everyone (in fact very few) experience their water breaking at home.

Not all mommies are able to discern if they’ve lost their mucus plug, and not all mommies experience bloody show.

That’s why measuring contractions is the clearest way to tell if you’re in actual labor.

So here’s the scoop: Braxton Hicks contractions fade away over time, and real labor progresses.

Now let’s get into those hacks to help you catch those sneaky Braxton Hicks!

Pregnant woman sitting on couch experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions and holding a glass of water

Do you have a birthing ball for pregnancy? They’re pretty amazing to help align your hips and pelvis in preparation for birth!

1: Stop and Put Your Feet Up

If you’re in the third trimester, you’re probably in the middle of nesting. You’re most likely scurrying all over your home getting things perfectly ready for your newborn.

And you’ve probably overdone it a bit without realizing it and now you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions.

If you notice tightening in your tummy every few minutes, stop and put your feet up. Sit down in a comfy chair, and elevate your feet.

Take some time and relax. False labor will eventually fade away while you sit and prop up your feet.

During my second pregnancy I had to use this trick almost daily for the last three weeks before I gave birth. Preparing for a newborn, chasing a toddler, and my ridiculous nesting craze sent me into Braxton Hicks routinely.

2: Drink A Glass of Cold Water

A glass of cold water (while you sit and prop up your feet) helps calm down Braxton Hicks.

Dehydration can cause all sorts of weird things during pregnancy, so if you’re in the third trimester and you notice that sneaky tightening, go back and monitor your fluid intake.

Remember, the amount of water you need daily during pregnancy is considerably more than normal. Chances are, if you’re nesting and getting ready for baby, you’ve forgotten to keep up on drinking water.

3: Go For A Walk

This hack is for those sneaky Braxton Hicks contractions that show up when you’re sitting or relaxing–and they do!

If this happens, go for a light walk to change things up. Don’t forget to take your water with you!

Braxton Hicks contractions will eventually fade away.

If walking doesn’t stop the contractions, sit down and relax afterward and prop your feet up. Trying lying down on your side and resting for a little while.

4: Take A Nap

Sleep is a precious commodity in the third trimester and it’s the hardest thing to get. I noticed I experienced Braxton Hicks contractions more often when I was overtired.

A poor night of sleep and then being on the go throughout the next day is a perfect setup for Braxton Hicks.

If this happens, get your ever-present glass of iced water and then try to take a nap for a little while.

PSA: It’s 100% okay to ask someone to watch your other kids so you can rest. That doesn’t make you a bad or inadequate mom. It makes you a wise one.

5: Take A Bath

This one was my favorite Braxton Hicks-catcher hack. It worked the best of all the other tricks during my first pregnancy.

I experienced frequent bouts of Braxton Hicks during my first pregnancy and they were sometimes stubborn. As a first time mom, it made me nervous.

I didn’t know what real labor felt like yet so I couldn’t tell what I was experiencing.

One of my more experienced friends recommended a bath with Epsom salts and guess what? It did the trick!

Relaxing in a warm tub is a great way to week out those sneaky Braxton Hicks. Light some candles, turn on your favorite tunes and enjoy the break.

This was the most effective way of stopping Braxton Hicks contractions for me, so I highly recommend it.

6: Download A Contraction Timer

Most pregnancy apps come with a contraction timer. A timer is a great way to call out those sneaky Braxton Hicks.

To use the timer, you “start” it when the contractions start and then “stop” it when they end. Some apps even let you mark the “peak” of each contraction.

Real contractions will reveal themselves by a pattern or rhythm most of the time. Real contractions feel like “mountains” with a noticeable start, peak, and end.

Braxton Hicks don’t have such a noticeable peak. They also tend to start and stop at random times that don’t have rhythm.

A contraction timer is a great way to visually watch for signs of real labor or call out those Braxton Hicks contractions.

Pregnant woman holding a glass of water

Braxton Hicks contractions vs Real Contractions: When Should I Go to the Hospital?

If you feel like you’re experiencing real contractions, the best thing to do is time them and wait. Real labor makes itself clear eventually.

Even real contractions are a little hard to read sometimes, especially if it’s your first pregnancy. They can start out really far apart so that you don’t even notice a pattern for hours.

If you’re in labor, those contractions will gradually get closer together. Everyone is different, including the time it takes for those contractions to get closer together.

So, when do you go to the hospital?

A rule of thumb you’ll often hear is the 5-1-1 rule, where contractions are 5 minutes apart, last for one minute and this goes on for one hour.

By this time, you’ll know it’s the real deal.

Talk with your OB during one of your appointments to see what they recommend (some OB’s recommend 4-1-1 rule where contractions are 4 minutes apart instead of the 5-1-1 rule).

What Happens During Real Contractions?

I found that it was easier to focus on deciphering if I was showing signs of real labor instead of trying to point out Braxton Hicks during my first pregnancy.

It helped me feel calmer about what I was experiencing instead of jumping at every tightening I felt (because freaking out over Braxton Hicks got old real fast).

Here are some signs you can count on happening when you experience real, honest-to-goodness contractions:

  • Contractions continue to occur and get closer together as time goes on (it could be hours)
  • Real contractions get stronger as time goes on and last longer
  • The space between contractions begins to feel shorter since they occur closer together and last longer
  • Real contractions eventually intensify where you can’t walk through them
  • Later on, real contractions intensify so that you can’t talk through them
  • You’ll feel real contractions completely throughout your middle (tummy, lower back, upper hips–it can vary but it’s there)

If I can offer one bit of advice, it would be to stay home until you reach the time that your doctor recommends you go in. Going to the hospital means that’s where you’ll stay until baby arrives and trust me, it’s not as comfortable as home.

The longer you can labor at home, the more relaxed you’ll be which sets you up for an overall better birth experience.

Don’t forget to ask your OB about signs and symptoms that you should go to the hospital right away. Keep that list nearby so you know what to watch for, and then just focus on staying as relaxed as you can during labor.

Wondering what to expect postpartum? Here are some weird postpartum facts you probably won’t hear anywhere else.

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