If you suddenly start to feel a strange tightening around your belly, you might not need to grab your hospital bag just yet—the sensation could be a Braxton Hicks contraction (not labour!), and it’s totally normal.
Braxton Hicks contractions—despite their name—are nothing like the real deal. They refer to the mildly uncomfy tightening of the uterine area, usually occurring during the late second or third trimester, and are thought to help tone and prep the uterus and cervix for labour.
Midwife Anne Richey explains the feeling: “The tightenings will feel similar to having your blood pressure taken. You’ll probably feel discomfort but you should not feel pain”. Hicks can hit at any time, usually only lasting half a minute, and can ramp up in intensity as your pregnancy develops. But they should never be painful, or increase in number during a fixed period of time.
On the other hand, you might not feel these ‘faux’ contractions at all; it’s not a cause for concern, though, as not all women do experience the sensation, and they’re still happening under your radar.
The idea that Braxton Hicks increase blood flow to the uterus and placenta, boosting oxygen to baby and preparing the body for labour is still just a theory—the phenomenon remains an enigma.
“Like many things in pregnancy, we’re not entirely sure why they happen, or why some people get them and others don’t,” says Anne Richey. “If you don’t get them it doesn’t mean that your baby isn’t getting enough oxygen, or that your body isn’t preparing for birth”.
The important thing is that you educate yourself on the difference between Braxton contractions and labour contractions. Says Anne: “Braxton Hicks don’t get stronger, longer, or more frequent but labour pains do”.
Braxton Hicks should also stop if you change position, or relax. Labour pains will continue, and rhythmically.
If you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and suspect what you’re feeling is the onset of labour (in this case, pre-term labour), contact your doctor or midwife immediately.
If you’re over the 37-week mark and you have:
- Lower back pain
- Upset stomach
- Brownish or blood-tinged mucus discharge
- You pass your mucus plug
- Disrupted sleep
- You’re very emotional
You might be in pre-labour, the stage before active labour when things are gearing up—and you may need to keep that hospital bag close after all.