Braxton Hicks (BH) contractions, also known as practice contractions, are sporadic uterine contractions that can start around six weeks into a pregnancy.
However, they are not usually felt until the second or third trimester of pregnancy. Dr John Braxton Hicks was the doctor who 'discovered' and named the phenomenon of the tightening of the uterus after observing pregnant women for many years.
In 1872 when he put pen to paper, and it became medical news, his name would be known to all women in the ages to come. He noticed that the uterus possessed the power and the habit of spontaneously contracting and relaxing from early in pregnancy.
This process was usually painless but caused women confusion as to whether or not they were going into actual labour. Over 200 years later, women are still amazed at the intensity and the power of contractions that do not necessarily herald the start of labour.
Braxton Hicks contractions are a tightening of the uterine muscles for one to two minutes and are thought to be an aid to the uterus in its preparation for labour and birth.
Not all expectant mothers feel these contractions. They should be infrequent, irregular, and involve only mild cramping sensations. Sometime towards the middle of your pregnancy, or maybe even earlier, you may notice the muscles of your uterus tightening.
If you place your hands on your abdomen when this is happening, you can feel how hard your uterus becomes. You may be aware of Braxton Hicks contractions from as early as 16 weeks.
However, without you realizing, your uterus has been contracting gently on and off since about seven weeks. The bigger your uterus gets, the more you notice the tightening sensations when they happen.
Braxton Hicks contractions are a sign that your uterus is keeping its muscle fibres toned, keeping your uterus in good condition and ready for the rigours of labour.
These contractions may give your cervix a bit of a rehearsal for the stretching stage.
Other experts think that Braxton Hicks contractions don't affect your cervix. They believe that your cervix doesn't change until the very last days of your pregnancy, or once you're in actual labour.
Braxton Hicks contractions:
- Are infrequent, usually happening not more than once or twice an hour, a few times a day
- Often stop if you change activity, so, walk around if you've been sitting, and vice versa
- Are usually irregular, and if they are regular they only stay that way for a short spell
- Do not last long, usually less than a minute
- Continue to be unpredictable and non-rhythmic
- Do not increase in intensity
Labour contractions are usually:
- Noticeably longer
- More regular
- More frequent
- More painful
- Keep on going, increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity as time goes on
You may experience what is called false labour:
This is when Braxton Hicks contractions come more rhythmically, perhaps every 10 to 20 minutes in late pregnancy. The closer you get to your due date, BH contractions may become more intense and even painful.
When this happens, they may feel like real labour is starting. However strong they feel at the time, if they ease off, they are probably Braxton Hicks.
How to alleviate the contractions
Rhythmic breathing may alleviate the discomfort of the contractions. Use these practice contractions to rehearse the breathing exercises you'll learn in your antenatal class.
Lying down on the left side can help ease the pain of contractions. A slight change in the movement sometimes makes the contractions disappear.
A full bladder can sometimes trigger BH, so emptying your bladder may ease the discomfort.
It sometimes helps to lie down, or, conversely, to get up and take a walk. It's the change in activity that can help to ease the pain.
Dehydration can makes them worse. It can make muscles spasm, bringing on a contraction, and is thought to be a factor in extended BH contractions. Adequate hydration can alleviate severe BH contractions.
A warm bath sometimes helps, too.
When to worry?
If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, call your doctor or midwife if your contractions are accompanied by: watery discharge or bloody vaginal discharge, lower back pain or cramping.
These may be signs that you are going into premature labour.
After 37 weeks, call your doctor or midwife if:
- You think your baby's movements have slowed down
- You think your waters have broken
- You have any bleeding
If your contractions become longer, stronger, more regular and more frequent, then your labour may be starting.
Your doctor or midwife will probably have talked to you about what to do when you think labour has started, but if you're in any doubt give him/her or the hospital delivery suite a call.
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