Braxton-Hicks vs. Real Labor: How to Tell the Difference

You may have already noticed painless tightening sensations in your abdomen from time to time, or you might not feel them until a bit later into your third trimester. These are known as Braxton-Hicks contractions, or “false labor.” 

What are Braxton-Hicks contractions? 

As the body starts to prepare itself for labor, the muscle fibers in your uterus will occasionally tighten and relax—these are contractions, but not “real” labor contractions. It’s thought that these are practice contractions to help strengthen the uterine muscles in preparation for labor and delivery, and they might also play a role in delivering extra oxygen and blood flow to the placenta during times of stress. 

How can I tell the difference between Braxton-Hicks and real labor? 

Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually painless (though they may be uncomfortable), and don’t follow any real pattern. They may come and go seemingly at random, though they are more likely to appear when you are dehydrated, when you’ve been especially active, or when your bladder is full. You’ll notice that Braxton-Hicks contractions are only felt in the front of your belly, or in just one specific location, and you can often make them stop if you move around or change position. 

Real labor contractions, on the other hand, might start out painless, but they will get stronger and more painful as time goes on. They will also start to come at more regular intervals, and then get closer and closer together. Rather than only being felt in one location, labor pains often start in your back and wrap around your abdomen into the front. You can’t make them stop by moving or changing positions, and you definitely won’t be able to sleep through them. 

What if I’m not sure? 

If you can’t tell for sure whether you are experiencing “practice” contractions or the real thing, you can give your doctor’s office a call and describe what you’re feeling. Your health care team has enough experience that they can often tell the difference over the phone! 

Want to learn more? Register for our Understanding Birth course!