What is a contraction?

Labor contractions are the tightening of a woman's uterus in order to deliver a baby. Contractions feel like a gradual tightening of the abdominal muscles followed by relaxation.
Labor contractions are the tightening of a woman's uterus in order to deliver a baby. Contractions feel like a gradual tightening of the abdominal muscles followed by relaxation.

Labor contractions, popularly known as contractions, refer to the tightening of a pregnant woman’s uterus (womb).

Labor contractions are most common during the last trimester (starts from the 29th week of pregnancy) of pregnancy but can often occur as early as mid-pregnancy. True labor contractions usually occur after the 37th week, most likely around your due date. If they occur before 37 weeks (before your expected delivery date) of pregnancy, it is more likely to be a sign of preterm labor. Your doctor may suggest delivering the child before your expected date of delivery.

Braxton-Hicks contractions, also referred to as false contractions, occur throughout the pregnancy. They are usually painless. If you are a first-time mother, you may feel anxious. Don't worry—dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting, sex, or a full bladder can trigger these false contractions.

What do contractions feel like when they first start?

Contractions can feel overwhelming and cause discomfort when they start or you may not be able to feel them unless you touch your belly and feel the tightening. You can feel your belly getting super hard and tight at intervals. It will then become soft and relax back to normal.

What do labor contractions feel like?

Labor contractions assist you to push your baby through the birth canal.

Early labor contractions may feel as if you have an upset stomach or trouble with your digestive system. You may feel them like a tidal wave because they increase and finally subside gradually. Some women feel intense  cramps that increase in intensity and stop after they deliver. Some may feel dull pain or discomfort, whereas others feel more of a heavy pressure on their lower abdomen. The sensations vary among pregnant women. Every woman has her own experience.

Additional signs that accompany contractions include:

Other things that are typical of labor contractions include:

  • Their frequency: The speed of labor contractions increases steadily and they come more often.
  • Their duration: They last for a longer time.
  • The interval between two contractions: The time interval between two labor contractions decreases.
  • Their intensity: Labor contractions become more intense.

To measure the number and duration of contractions:

  • Start counting when a new contraction begins. Look for the tightening of the abdomen. Note the duration as soon as it ends. This is the duration of one contraction.
  • Continue counting (do not start over) until the next contraction begins and repeat the same process. Note the interval between every two contractions.
  • Repeat the same process for one hour.

Each contraction lasts for at least 30 seconds and can go on until 70 seconds during labor. Having one at least every 15 minutes for an hour means you are more likely in labor.

When to go to the hospital

If you are a first-time mother, you should visit the hospital for any contraction if you have additional concerns. A visit to the doctor may decrease your worry.

Call a healthcare provider when labor begins. Your doctor may ask you to be admitted earlier based on your health status and birth history. First-time mothers usually labor for longer than women with a history of delivering previous children. Head toward the hospital as soon as you start feeling the contractions around or after the 37th week.

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Braxton-Hicks contractions vs. real contractions

Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually painless contractions that begin in the first trimester of pregnancy. Unlike Braxton-Hicks, real contractions occur at regular intervals and become stronger and longer over time. The pain and discomfort of real contractions isn't relieved by a change in position.
Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually painless contractions that begin in the first trimester of pregnancy. Unlike Braxton-Hicks, real contractions occur at regular intervals and become stronger and longer over time. The pain and discomfort of real contractions isn't relieved by a change in position.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually painless contractions that begin in the first trimester (usually around the 6th week) of pregnancy. Women with a history of childbirth may experience these contractions in the second trimester. Braxton-Hicks contractions are also sometimes called false labor, pre-labor or practice contractions.

Real contractions are referred to as the ones that signal true labor.

What do Braxton-Hicks contractions feel like?

Most women usually feel Braxton-Hicks contractions as painless contractions in the abdomen that occur at irregular intervals. Others experience them as a tightened belly when they casually happen to move their hands over their belly. It is okay and completely normal to not experience Braxton-Hicks contractions at all.

Researchers do not know the exact reason behind Braxton-Hicks contractions. However, certain factors such as dehydration; a full bladder; and illnesses such as flu, diarrhea and vomiting are known to trigger them.

Some experts believe that Braxton-Hicks contractions are the body’s way to let the uterus adjust to contractions that occur during labor. This might be like a practice or preparation for the body for the final day—the day of delivering a new life.

How to know if it is true labor or Braxton-Hicks contractions

It is much easier for experienced mothers to identify whether they are experiencing true labor or Braxton-Hicks contractions. New moms are often confused between the two and may get scared because of the lack of knowledge.

Here is a table that can help women figure out if it is a sign of true labor or a false sign (Braxton-Hicks contraction):

           Braxton-Hicks contractions                       Real contractions of true labor         
Contractions occur at an irregular pace. Contractions occur at regular intervals of 15 to 20 minutes.
Contractions don't become closer together over time. The interval between two contractions starts decreasing over time.
Contractions are usually felt only in the front of the belly. Contractions can be felt all over the belly.
Contractions do not become longer or stronger. Contractions get more intense or stronger. They increasingly become longer.
There is usually mild discomfort. Some may feel mild to moderate pain. The pain is severe enough to cause difficulty in activities such as walking.

Most often, measures such as resting, switching positions (for example, standing instead of sitting) and drinking a lot of water helps relieve the contractions.

Movements or changes in positions or activities do not help relieve the contractions.

How to cope with Braxton-Hicks contractions

If women are having discomfort or mild to moderate pain with Braxton-Hicks contractions, they should try the measures below.

  • Take deep breaths.
  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Go for a massage.
  • Change positions.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Take a warm bath.
  • De-stress (watch a movie, call a friend, or do something relaxing).

When to seek medical help

Braxton-Hicks contractions do not generally require a visit to the doctor. However, if they are extremely painful and are coming at regular intervals, it signals some serious issues such as preterm labor or some other problem. For any additional concerns, women should not hesitate to speak to their doctor or midwife to relieve their apprehensions and clarify their doubts.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/24/2022
References
Medscape Medical Reference

Mayo Clinic