Difference between Braxton Hicks and Labor Contractions

Updated on February 24, 2018

Any pregnant woman should learn about the phenomenon of “false” labor pains or so-called Braxton Hicks contractions mentioned a lot in professional female health care literature and scientific articles. Closer to the due date pregnant women may experience really tough Braxton Hicks that can be compared to real labor contractions.

Are they basically the same thing and just differ in intensity, or are there obvious differences to set them apart? This article will give the answer to this and many other common questions on pregnancy and labor contractions.


Braxton Hicks

Braxton Hicks contractions usually appear at the end of the 2nd trimester or at the beginning of the 3rd trimester of pregnancy. During this type of false contraction women may notice their uterus tightening and becoming hard to touch. Such contractions may be about 30 seconds long and usually don’t cause much discomfort to the mom-to-be.

Braxton Hicks are training uterus contractions that don’t lead to delivery and opening of the cervix. They have an irregular start and stop suddenly. Some women describe them as menstrual cramps; other compare them more to the start of labor pains.

Actually this type of contraction starts much earlier than at the end of the 2nd trimester, but the uterus is much smaller and most women don’t even notice a slight tightening of their baby bump. As the womb gets bigger, Braxton Hicks becomes more noticeable and sometimes even painful.

What is their function? False contractions are considered to be a sign that your uterus is okay and its muscles are toned enough. Experts also add that Braxton Hicks affect the cervix; especially in the last few weeks of pregnancy they make the cervix become shorter and more elastic, getting it ready for dilatation and labor.

In case Braxton Hicks bring a lot of pain and discomfort you may try breathing exercises for labor pains you might have learned at the antenatal classes. Concentrate on getting enough oxygen and try to relax.

Sometimes a little walking around helps to relieve Braxton Hicks pains; you may also take a warm shower if you feel it would help.

A bad thing about Braxton Hicks is that they may be really annoying to expectant mothers, taking into account all the other inconveniences associated with pregnancy. But a good thing about them is that they come and go and may suddenly disappear when you change position or empty your bladder.

Comfortable positions for labor contractions
Comfortable positions for labor contractions

True labor contractions come after the body releases the special “labor hormone” oxytocin. Provoking labor is one of its functions, but in this case it strongly stimulates the uterus to contract and the cervix to dilate. For healthy pregnancies delivery date is from the 37th to 40th week of pregnancy. At this time the pregnancy is considered to be full-term. Labor contractions before the 37th week of pregnancy lead to premature labor.

Labor contractions tighten the top part of the womb and relax the bottom part to push the baby down to the birth canal. At the same time the cervix gets thinner and dilates (opens) to help the baby pass through it. Most mothers compare true labor contractions to the sensation of waves inside the body. Such waves may come upside down and vice versa, as well as from the back to the front.

The baby bump is extremely hard during the contraction and becomes softer after it.

Labor contractions may be really painful and some women ask for pain medications such as epidural anesthesia or narcotic drugs introduced intravenously or intramuscularly. Medications for pain control are questionable as they have many side effects. However, sometimes the labor contraction pain is unbearable and there is no alternative.

Braxton Hicks vs Labor contractions

What’s the difference between Braxton Hicks and labor contractions? There are a few of them. The most obvious is that Braxton Hicks are sudden and infrequent and usually happen no more than 1-2 times per hour several times a day. Labor contractions on the other hand are rhythmical and appear every 10-30 minutes, increasing in intensity of pain, and you know when to expect the next one.

Another sign that can guarantee that you have labor contractions instead of Braxton Hicks is vaginal examination by the doctor. During labor the cervix starts its dilatation and it is visible in the examination.

Braxton Hicks usually stop when you change activity or take a warm shower, while true labor contractions may only become stronger from these activities.

Labor contractions may be accompanied by the waters breaking from the vagina or any other unusual vaginal discharge like bloody mucus. This is the sign that the cervix is opening and the amniotic sac is broken, so the baby will come out in a few hours.

Unlike Braxton Hicks, labor contractions appear closer to the due date in case your pregnancy wasn’t pathologic. So the closer you are to 37-40 weeks of pregnancy, the more chance you have to feel real labor contractions. Make sure you contact your doctor immediately and follow their instructions.

Comparison Chart

Braxton HicksLabor contractions
May start already in the 2nd trimesterUsually after the 37th week of pregnancy (if earlier – this is a case of premature birth)
Suddenly start and suddenly stop without any schedule or rhythmCome with regular intervals, getting more intense and closer to each other
Feel like unpleasant tightening of the uterus, usually not very painfulFeel like waves of painful cramps, start from medium intensity and grow to serious labor pain
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