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What is different between Braxton-Hicks and labor contractions?

Dr. Deborah Raines, MSN
Nursing Specialist

Braxton-Hicks contractions are irregular and intermittent in frequency, intensity and duration. They are localized to the abdominal or groin area and are relieved by activity or a change in position. Braxton-hicks are not associated with the presence of bloody show and do not lead to progressive cervical change.

On the other hand labor contractions have a regular pattern of frequency, intensity and during which increase over time. They begin in the lower back and wrap around the abdomen. Labor contractions are not relieved by activity or position change, in fact, sometimes activity increases the intensity of the contractions. Labor contractions lead to progressive cervical change.

Dr. Richard W. Ott, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

When labor is happening, the contractions are actually changing the cervix, dilating the cervix, or thinning the cervix out. That's what is diagnostic of labor. So when a woman is feeling Braxton Hicks contractions, the question is, Is it real labor or not? Because they're really contractions, some may be painful, some may not be painful. To know whether you have to be worried or not, that's when you get off your feet, drink fluids, rest, and if they start to space out then it's probably just Braxton Hicks contractions, not real labor. You can resume full activity whenever they go away.

During the third trimester of pregnancy, it's very common to start to feel non-labor contractions. Early on, from 28 to 36 weeks, they might be small. Women might notice a small tightening of the abdomen. These are most commonly referred to as Braxton-Hicks contractions, and don't generally cause labor. If they occur more frequently than every 10 minutes and they're increasing in pain, relaxation techniques may help, such as taking a bath or shower, and putting the feet up. If they still increase, the woman should go to the hospital to be evaluated for pre-term labor. After 36 weeks, contractions need to be stronger and more frequent to call it labor. Contractions every three to five minutes, and so painful that you can't smile through the contraction indicates labor, and that's when the woman you should go to the hospital. Also, if the water breaks at any time, the woman should go to the hospital.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are weak and come randomly as your uterus prepares for labor. You can relieve them by changing positions or moving around. Real contractions will be more powerful and become more frequent. They cannot be helped by changing position and progressively last longer. You should call your doctor if your contractions concern you.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.