The highly anticipated magical 40 week milestone has finally arrived. After 9 months of carrying around your rapidly growing baby, you're due to pop at any moment. You're at home, relaxing in front of the TV, when suddenly.... OUCH! What was that? A contraction? Nervous and excited, you shout for your partner, grab your carefully packed hospital bag that's been sat waiting for this exact moment for months, and make the drive to the hospital. This is YOUR turn.... Or is it? If you're turned away from the maternity ward with false labor, don't be too disheartened. You're certainly not alone as you join the millions of red-faced Moms-to-be who have mistaken late stage Braxton Hicks contractions for real labor.
What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?
Quite simply, Braxton Hicks contractions are contractions on a much smaller scale to those that occur during labor. They're a well-documented aspect of pregnancy but, interestingly, no one knows much about them! These contractions can be picked up through fetal monitors, so what we do know is that they cause a definite tightening of the uterus, similar to real contractions but far less intense, far less painful, and with a far less clear purpose.
Research into the "how" and "why" of Braxton Hicks contractions is very uncertain and contradictory. No clear-cut causes have been found and medics seem to mostly disagree on why they happen. Some believe they help to soften and "ripen" the cervix, preparing it for labor, but studies tend to fail in finding a link between these contractions and any cervical changes. Some medical professionals have succumbed to a "they happen because they happen" attitude, while many Moms-to-be who have been tricked by them think they're Mother Nature's final laugh before childbirth.
What's really interesting about Braxton Hicks contractions is that although they happen to most of us during pregnancy, from as early as 6 weeks gestation right through until the end, only a few of us feel them. Why some do and some don't is a mystery, though there are certain things that may make us more susceptible, which we'll look later.
Braxton Hicks Vs. Labor: Telling The Difference
Those who have done it all before know what to expect, and are rarely fooled by Braxton Hicks contractions, but for first time Moms they can be very misleading! Fortunately, there's a fair few differences between these "practice" contractions and the real thing, so as long as you're on the lookout for these there should be no question as to whether you need to put the kettle back on, or shoot off to the maternity ward.
The main distinguishing feature of these contractions is that they very rarely cause actual pain, and are often described as being more uncomfortable than painful (men - it's best not to mention this to your pregnant partner as she's experiencing one!). They are generally quite weak and irregular contractions which do not get stronger and do not increase in frequency. You shouldn't really be having more than four tightenings an hour. Many women find that they can be distracted from the discomfort, and can easily talk and walk through them.
These contractions may start off as uncomfortable and irregular, but will start to become more intense, painful and should start to come at regular intervals (when they're lasting for 60 seconds and coming every couple of minutes it's time to call your Midwife). It's difficult to understand if you've not been through it before, but trust me, you will know when you're in real labor! Labor contractions often (but not always) coincide with changes in cervical mucus (including the "bloody show" and ruptured membranes) and lower back pain.
As we don't know what causes Braxton Hicks, we can't say what "cures" them either. Fortunately, there's some quick and simple tricks to try out if you're feeling a bit tight that many women find relieve some of the discomfort.
If you've done your pregnancy homework, you'll know that many experts in this field suggest adopting a quick yet rhythmic breathing technique throughout contractions which makes us look like we're panting. As well as making us look silly, It's a kind of relaxation method designed to increase the oxygen levels in the body, preventing panic symptoms. As with real contractions, breathing in this manner during Braxton Hicks contractions can not only help you to relax, but may also distract you from some of the stretching and tightness.
Have you ever gone to the gym without taking a drink with you, and suffered with terrible muscle pain afterwards? Dehydration causes the body's muscles to contract (and hurt!) and it's the same for all muscles, whether it's your calf or your uterus! So make sure you drink plenty of fluids (water is best), but with the baby playing soccer with your bladder, it may be wise to stay close to the bathroom....
...Speaking of which - having a wee might also lessen the discomfort. With a full-term baby squashing your internal organs, there's really not a lot of room in there, and many organs become rather neighbourly, especially the uterus and the bladder. A full bladder can irritate the uterus, causing it to contract in protest. So if you need to go, then go!
Many Doctors hate that knowledge and understanding of Braxton Hicks has become so widespread, as there's fears women will dismiss any symptoms simply as a harmless and natural side effect of pregnancy. While Braxton Hicks is common, if you have any signs of real labor, or even some symptoms you're unsure about, it's important you speak to your Doctor or Midwife immediately, especially if you've not yet reached 37 weeks gestation.