Your Guide to Braxton Hicks & False Labor

Your Guide to Braxton Hicks & False Labor

Braxton Hicks contractions and false labor are trial runs for the real thing.

They’re useful strategies your body uses to get ready for childbirth.

But they can also be very confusing.

That’s where we come in.

The more you know about the different hurdles that may come your way during pregnancy, the easier it is to navigate them when they arrive.

According to a 2015 study, feeling confident before going into labor is the biggest predictor of feeling confident during labor.

And feeling confident during labor can lead to a more positive birth experience — which in turn can lead to better health outcomes for you and your little one.

The more knowledge you have going into the final stretch of pregnancy, the more confident you’ll feel.

With that in mind, we’ll take you through what Braxton Hicks contractions and false labor are, how to tell the difference between them, and what happens when you get to the main event.

Hold tight.

In this article: 📝

  • What are Braxton Hicks contractions?
  • What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?
  • What week do Braxton Hicks usually start?
  • What triggers Braxton Hicks?
  • How do I know if it’s Braxton Hicks or contractions?
  • What is prodromal labor?
  • What is the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and prodromal labor?
  • What are the signs that labor is close?
  • What do contractions feel like?
  • How to time contractions
  • Braxton Hicks and prodromal labor: the final word

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are a tightening of the muscles in your uterus during pregnancy — and one of your body’s many smart ways of preparing you for childbirth.

They are moderate in intensity, uncoordinated, and irregular.

They’re different from the contractions you feel during active labor.

Active labor contractions are regular and intensify as labor progresses.

Consider Braxton Hicks as exercise for your uterus, helping to tone up the necessary muscles ahead of labor.

These pre-labor contractions are named after English doctor John Braxton Hicks, who described them way back in 1872.

Of course, women have been experiencing these pre-labor contractions since the beginning of time.

But it’s only until fairly recently that physicians have been credited with “discovering” them.

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

Braxton Hicks contractions usually aren’t painful, but you may feel some discomfort — something like mild period pain.

Your abs may feel really hard and might even look a bit contorted.

The word from the American Pregnancy Association is that a Braxton Hicks contraction lasts on average between 30 to 60 seconds but can go on for up to two minutes.

Even though they’re just a practice run, Braxton Hicks contractions can feel quite strong for some people.

(Yep, you may need to kick in that deep breathing you’ve been practicing at prenatal classes.)

For some people, It can also be difficult to differentiate Braxton Hicks from your little one’s kicks and movements.

One handy way to tell is by pressing on the tops and sides of your uterus to see if it feels hard.

If it does, it’s probably contractions.

If it’s soft in places, it’s likely your baby-to-be is up to some fancy tricks in there.

What week do Braxton Hicks usually start?

Braxton Hicks are usually felt in the second and third trimester, but can start at any time during pregnancy.

(And some people never get them at all!)

According to this study, they can even start as early as week 6.

What triggers Braxton Hicks?

Dehydration is one of the most common triggers for Braxton Hicks contractions.

Sometimes getting some water to that belly is one of the simplest ways to get the contractions to calm down.

(Note: this only works for Braxton Hicks contractions. Real labor contractions can’t be stopped by a sip of water.)

We give you the full lowdown on pregnancy hydration here.

It’s common to feel them after doing something strenuous — exercise and sex can bring them on.

(And when we say exercise, that includes vacuuming the house, putting together your baby’s nursery, and climbing up the stairs.)

You may also be more prone to Braxton Hicks contractions if you are sick with a cold or flu or are struggling with nausea and vomiting.

Another possible trigger?

Having a full bladder.

With that all in mind, here are some things you can try to ease the feelings when they come:

While Braxton Hicks contractions are nothing to worry about, if you are at all concerned about any pain or discomfort you are feeling — or are simply unsure about what’s going on inside you — reach out to your healthcare provider.

There are no silly questions when it comes to you and your baby’s well-being.

How do I know if it’s Braxton Hicks or contractions?

Braxton Hicks tend to:

  • Come and go irregularly. Labor contractions are regular and won’t go away by changing positions or drinking water.
  • Not be the same length or intensity. Labor contractions get steadily longer and closer together.)
  • Duration varies and they taper off. Labor contractions become stronger as the time between them gets shorter.

Braxton Hicks contractions are also usually described as uncomfortable rather than painful.

What is prodromal labor?

Prodromal labor is often called “false labor” as well, but this is probably not technically correct.

This is another way your body prepares for birth, and it only happens close to active labor.

Prodromal comes from the Greek word pródromos meaning “precursor.”

So while these contractions are useful labor prep, they’re the warm-up rather than the main event and don’t necessarily progress toward childbirth.

They can occur anywhere between hours and weeks before labor actually begins.

An important difference between prodromal and active labor is that while the uterus does some hard work during prodromal labor, there is no change to the cervix.

And this is different from active labor when your cervix goes through two processes.

One is called effacement or ripening.

Basically, this means that the cervical tunnel softens and thins out in preparation for the travels of its tiny commuter.

The other is that it widens, a process called “dilating.”

During prodromal labor, you are only preparing for labor, and your cervix is not ready to get going with this task yet.

Another significant difference between this and active labor is that during the prodromal variety, the contractions don’t increase in intensity and frequency.

So there’s no build-up here, no rising to a crescendo.

While research is still ongoing, experts suggest that these contractions help to prepare the necessary muscles and ligaments for the real deal.

It’s also possible that they help get your baby in position for birth.

The ideal position for babies to be born is called the occiput anterior (OA) position — head down and facing your back.

If they’re bum down, as is the case with the breech position, this can lead to complications during birth.

There are various reasons babies are not in the optimal position when it comes time to make their appearance.

When babies are born early or are one of multiples, the chances go up that they might be breech.

Levels of amniotic fluid and the shape of the mother’s uterus can also play a role.

But don’t worry if your baby hasn’t quite taken their place when the time is nigh.

There are various methods that your healthcare team can use to bring them safely into the world, including something called an external cephalic version (ECV).

Here, your doctor applies pressure from the outside to try and move things on the inside.
But not all ObGyns will go with this option as it does come with a higher risk of the cord wrapping around the baby’s neck.

(We give you the full lowdown on the breech position here.)

What is the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and prodromal labor?

So there’s a tightening in your uterus. Braxton Hicks?

Prodromal labor?

Active labor?

Yep, it’s not always easy to know what’s what.

Think of prodromal labor as somewhere between active labor and Braxton Hicks.

Both Braxton Hicks and prodromal labor are your body prepping itself.

But there are some key differences that can help you determine which is which.

(Again, if you’re unsure and/or in pain, talk to your healthcare provider.)

Prodromal labor tends to be:

  • More painful than Braxton Hicks
  • Stronger than Braxton Hicks
  • More consistent than Braxton Hicks
  • Only starts towards the end of your pregnancy, while Braxton Hicks can start much earlier.

Another key difference is that Braxton Hicks contractions tend to go away after you move positions, walk around, or drink water — and this is usually not the case for prodromal labor.

That all being said, some experts don’t differentiate between the two experiences and believe they are simply variations of the same thing.

As for signs that it’s active labor?

We’ll take you through what to watch out for — but you don’t have to play guessing games.

If you’re unsure where your body’s at, talk to your healthcare team.

They might ask you to describe what you’re feeling and/or to time your contractions to help you get more info.

What are the signs that labor is close?

So how do you know if the real deal is on its way?

There’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all experience here.

But there are some key signs to watch out for:


Lightening is when your baby drops down in your pelvis.

When this happens, you may feel pressure in your pelvis, a few lightening bolts below, or an ache in your lower back.

Some mamas-to-be-report that they can breathe easier because their baby has moved lower.

One of the reasons for this is that there’s not as much pressure on IVC (inferior vena cava), which is the largest vein in the human body.

(It carries blood from the lower legs, abdomen, and pelvis area to the heart.)

So yep, lightening is a sign that your little one is getting ready to make their appearance on the outside.

It doesn’t mean that labor is about to happen any second, though.

While it’s common for lightening to happen towards the end of the third trimester, labor could still be a few days — or even weeks — away.

For more info on what happens when your baby drops into the pelvis, head here.

Losing your mucus plug

Your mucus plug is pretty much exactly what it says it is — a plug of mucus in your cervical canal that guards your little one against infection and bacteria.

As your pregnancy draws to a close and your cervix starts preparing for childbirth, you lose your mucus plug.

So how do you know that this has happened?

Well, you don’t always.

You might notice mucus (more jelly-like and stringy compared to normal vaginal discharge) in your underwear.

But for some people, the mucus plugs come out very slowly over time, and they might not even realize it.

As to when you lose your mucus plug — it’s different for everyone.

But once you lose it, it usually means your cervix has started to widen and soften for birth, which means labor is either right on the horizon or has started already.

Bloody show

This very dramatically named end-of-pregnancy occurrence is linked to the loss of the mucus plug, but is not exactly the same thing.

Your cervix is rich in blood vessels, so when it widens, thins, and softens in preparation for labor, they get affected.

The blood will likely be brown, pink, or red and might be mixed with mucus from the loss of the mucus plug.

A bloody show will only produce a little blood — a tablespoon or two at most.

If you notice a lot of blood, it’s important that you get in touch with your doctor ASAP, as it may signal that something else is up.

And then there are some other signs of upcoming labor that you may not have expected.

Diarrhea is a common one.

One of the key culprits here are prostaglandins, hormone-like compounds that help prepare your cervix for labor and spark contractions.

Another thing they can do?

Affect your bowels.


And the list doesn’t end there.

There are all sorts of late pregnancy curiosities that might visit just before labor, including nesting, clumsiness, and weight loss.

Head here for all the details on the common signs that labor is on its way.

What do contractions feel like?


So labor has kicked off — for real.

Now we’re onto the active labor kind of contractions.

You know, the kind that means a baby is about to enter the world any moment now.

Like the prep versions, these contractions make themselves known in your general pelvic area.
It’s common to feel them in your lower abdomen, and you might also experience some pain on your sides and down your thighs.

Like pretty much everything to do with our bodies, we all experience contractions differently.

They’re described as intense period cramps for some, diarrhea cramps for others.

And for others, an interesting combo of the two.

You might also experience what’s called back labor, or back labor pain.

As the name suggests, this is pain and discomfort in your lower back during childbirth.

It’s sometimes accompanied by painful spasms.

Back labor can be quite intense and can worsen as each contraction happens.

One of the possible reasons for back labor is your baby’s position — particularly if they’re facing your front rather than your back (AKA the occiput posterior position, AKA “sunny side up”).

But sometimes, back labor just happens regardless of your baby’s position.

One possibility?

According to research cited by the American Pregnancy Association, if you often have back pain related to your menstrual cycle, you might be more likely to experience back labor.

Luckily, there are ways to relieve back labor, including applying a hot or cold compress, trying hydrotherapy in the form of a shower or birth pool, or having someone apply a rolling pressure with something like a tennis ball or rolling pin.

Birth pools, rolling pins, tennis balls….

As you can see, it’s a good idea to come into labor with a toolkit and some sense of what is possible at the place you’re giving birth.

And talk to your birth team ahead of time about your birth preferences.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned — that’s why we opt for the term birth preferences over birth plan.

But research shows that this sort of foundational work can improve your understanding of the whole process of labor and childbirth and help you express what you need in the moment.

We’ll give you the 411 on what to include in your birth preferences in this article.

How to time contractions

If you think labor has started, start timing your contractions to see if a pattern is emerging.

This is really useful info for your healthcare team and can help you figure out if what you’re experiencing is going to progress toward childbirth.

Here’s your cheat sheet for timing contractions:

  • Choose your method.
    You can go old school and get out a good ol’ pen and paper, or go full Millenial and get a special contraction timer app. No one way to do this thing.
  • Start the count. You’ll want to count two things: 1) the length of each contraction, and 2) the time between the start of one contraction and the start of the next.
  • Note down each one. Apps might do this for you, or again, you can use pen and paper.

When labor first starts (called early labor), contractions are less intense and shorter (usually somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds).

They could be as far as twenty minutes apart at this point.

This early phase of labor can last for a long time — for some, a few days.

Then comes active labor.

Contractions will get longer (somewhere around a minute), more intense, and more frequent (every two to three minutes).

The 411 rule is a helpful guide that some healthcare professionals use to help you determine when to go to hospital:

If contractions happen every four minutes, last at least one minute, and this all happens for at least one hour, you should get going.

Of course, this assumes you’re relatively close to the hospital.

If you live farther from the hospital, ask your doctor’s advice about when to get in the car.

Once you’re in the care of your doctor or midwife, they can monitor the effect of your contractions on your baby.

They’ll watch your baby’s heartbeat for things like late decelerations, where a baby’s heart rate slows down after the peak of a contraction.

This is a sign of fetal distress, and your team will advise you on what needs to happen next.

It may mean that you need a medical intervention like an emergency C-section.

We know — all of this can be scary.

But the more you know going in, the easier it is to navigate any issues that arise.

And medical professionals are well-equipped to deal with any surprises that come up.

Braxton Hicks and prodromal labor: the final word

Braxton Hicks contractions and prodromal labor are examples of the serious prep work your body is doing to get ready for the big day.

The only trouble is that your body doesn’t always let you know exactly what its plans are. 😊

Particularly if this is your first pregnancy, it can feel like there are a multitude of unknowns and uncertainties.

The Peanut community is here to support you through everything pregnancy, birth, and beyond.

You don’t have to do this alone. 💗

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