Braxton Hicks: What pregnant women need to know about practice contractions

If your stomach feels hard and you're not in pain, it's likely a Braxton Hicks.
/ Source: TODAY

A woman who is 30 weeks pregnant has just finished her morning walk. Suddenly, she feels her stomach tighten. A few hours later, it happens again. No pain — just a rock hard belly.

Should she grab her hospital go bag?

Probably not.

Braxton Hicks contractions — which typically become noticeable in the third trimester — are like a dress rehearsal or fire drill for labor and delivery. These random, intermittent contractions do not cause cervical change and do not get stronger over time, according to Dr. Katherine Economy, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

“The hallmark of Braxton Hicks is that you wouldn’t describe them as painful. You can still talk through them,” Economy told TODAY Parents. “Some women might have to sit down for a moment or feel a little breathless, but you can go about your daily work.”

Here’s what to know about Braxton Hicks contractions:

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

"Most of the time patients will say, 'I felt my uterus get hard and I put my hand on it and it was like a rock," Economy said. Some women describe a tightening that comes and goes, while others liken the sensation to mild menstrual cramps.

But it’s also completely normal to feel nothing at all.

"I’ll put a pregnant woman on a monitor and she’s shocked when it shows the uterus contracting quite regularly," she explained.

What causes Braxton Hicks contractions?

“Exercise or extra activity can trigger Braxton Hicks,” Economy said. “Dehydration is another big one. You want to make sure you’re drinking enough fluids.”

According to the American Pregnancy Association, these contractions also can occur after sex or when the bladder is full.

When do you you starting having Braxton Hicks contractions?

Though they are most commonly experienced in the third trimester, Economy noted that they can be felt in the second trimester.

How long do Braxton Hicks contractions last?

According to the American Pregnancy Association, they can last as long as two minutes, but they have no set rhythm. "It's not about the frequency, it's about the pain level," Economy said.

Why are they called 'Braxton Hicks'?

Braxton Hicks contractions get their name from John Braxton Hicks, the British doctor who first identified them in 1872.

What is the purpose of Braxton Hicks contractions?

Medical experts believe that Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as practice contractions, prepare the uterus for when it’s time for real labor.

How can you relieve Braxton Hicks contractions?

“We usually tell people that they’re most likely to go away on their own,” Economy said. “But resting and staying hydrated should also ease things.”

The APA also recommends changing positions, taking a bath for 30 minutes or less, or sipping a cup of warm herbal tea or milk.

Where do you feel Braxton Hicks contractions?

Real contractions will often start in the back and wrap around to the front, while Braxton Hicks are often only felt in one specific spot on the abdomen.

“But the main difference is pain,” Economy noted. “Real contractions hurt. It's difficult to talk through them."

Should you call your doctor?

Absolutely.

“We want to know about the things you are feeling,” Economy told TODAY Parents. “The only way to know 100 percent that you’re not in labor is to be evaluated, put on the monitor and have someone check your cervix.”

Economy added that some women have a very high tolerance for pain.

"Every now and then I have a woman who comes in 7 centimeters dilated and says it doesn't feel so bad," she revealed. "So make sure to check in with your doctor just to be sure."

Related video: