Difference between Braxton Hicks and Labor Pains

First time pregnancies can be scary, even for the women who have been waiting for this moment and are excited about the whole process. As the due date starts closing in, many women get anxious about how they will be able to tell when it’s time to go to the hospital. Since every pregnancy is different and women have experienced discomfort and pain at various levels, how can we tell when it’s a false alarm or the real deal?


Braxton Hicks vs Labor Pains

Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labor, can start as early as the second or third trimester of the pregnancy and are thought to be a sort of “dress rehearsal” for the actual labor. They usually last between 15 and 30 seconds and they cause no cervical changes. Braxton Hicks contractions are supposed to be alleviated by medication, rest or hydration.

Although many women experience these contractions differently, they are generally conceived as mild cramps which are infrequent and irregular, caused by hormones sending signals to the body to prepare for the upcoming childbirth. They feel like a tightening of the lower abdominal area, followed by a release. To some women they are only uncomfortable, while to others they are painful. They are named after the doctor who first diagnosed false labor in 1872.

Labor pains are just as problematic to define for the sole reason that women’s experiences differ. While some women describe them as being similar to menstrual cramps, others have experienced sharp pain that did not let up. Although how well women cope with the moment is genetically determined by their pain endurance level or the physiognomy, other factors such as the baby’s position or social aspects such as fear and anxiety can also play a part.

The pain is due to the muscles of the uterus contracting in an attempt to push the baby out. These contractions will become stronger and more frequent as the time to deliver the baby approaches. Labor pains are usually accompanied by other symptoms which indicate that it’s time to go to the hospital: mucus plug discharge, lightening (settling of the baby onto the pelvic region), dilation of the cervix.

Braxton Hicks vs Labor pains

So, what is the difference between Braxton Hicks and labor pains?

The first is used to describe false labor, while the second is the start of the real process. Braxton Hicks contractions can start early in the pregnancy but can pass unnoticed. For some women, as the pregnancy progresses, they become more intense. Even so, there are things which can alleviate the contractions, which is a pretty good way of telling between the two types of contractions. Doctors believe that a change in movement or in position, relaxing and putting the feet up and drinking a tall glass of water or urinating (the pains can be caused by a full bladder) can help.

However, if these mild contractions are accompanied by mild back pain, pressure in the pelvic area or any type of vaginal discharge, a doctor or a midwife must be contacted as they may point to pre-term labor.

Braxton Hicks contractions remain irregular. Regular contractions which start occurring closer and closer to each other and which last between 30 and 70 seconds are labor pains. Since anxiety levels are always high as the pregnancy reaches its term, it is easy for women to mistake one for another and to have a hard time telling which is which. The best solution is to try the Braxton Hicks remedies and see how the contractions feel and then to contact a doctor when they see that they do not let up.

Comparison Chart

Braxton Hicks Labor pains
Start early in the pregnancy Start when delivery is imminent
Are irregular Are regular
They let up under certain conditions They keep growing in intensity and get closer together
They do not increase in strength They increase in strength
Felt in the abdomen and pelvic region May be felt in the lower back as well