Braxton Hicks vs Real Contractions: Key Signs

Jan 15, 2020
Braxton Hicks vs Real Contractions: Key Signs

Being pregnant opens the door for all kinds of information you may have never known about before. Your body changes, your moods vary, and there are good days coupled with a few not-so-great. This rollercoaster of changes and emotions is normal even though it may not always feel like it. One of the things that’s introduced as you grow with your baby is the difference in contractions. There are those that occur mid-term, referred to as Braxton Hicks contractions or “false labor” contractions.

Just when you thought contractions only occur during labor, here comes another form that serve as a practice round before your due date arrives. But what’s the difference between Braxton Hicks vs. real labor contractions and are they easy to identify? No need to worry; there are specific signs to look for with each.

When Do Contractions Occur?

As you reach the fourth or fifth month of your pregnancy, you may notice a tightening of your uterus every once in a while. It may not feel intense or painful, but it doesn’t feel normal either. You’re likely experience Braxton Hicks contractions. These false contractions come and go without any set frequency and fortunately, they do not increase in how often or how long they occur.

If you experience mid-term contractions that increase in intensity or are accompanied by vaginal discharge or bleeding, consult your doctor. These are not typical preterm symptoms of false labor contractions and may be the cause or result of something else.

You’ll notice the difference between Braxton Hicks vs. real contractions pretty easily. True labor contractions come at more regular intervals with each new one occurring in shorter time spans. They also increase in intensity and are often painful and highly uncomfortable.

What Do Contractions Feel Like?

The uterus tightens as the body prepares the muscles for delivery, but you might still be wondering what do Braxton Hicks feel like? For most, the practice contractions are relatively painless, but are accompanied by discomfort. Common Braxton Hicks symptoms are:

  • Tightening around the abdomen
  • Feelings of mild menstrual cramps
  • Irregular contractions
  • No blood or vaginal discharge
  • No increase in frequency or intensity from the time the contractions start

With Braxton Hicks contractions, you’ll feel it mainly in the front area. With real labor contractions, the pain starts in the back and makes it way around to the abdomen. Other symptoms of real time contractions include:

  • Water breaking. This doesn’t happen in all women, but it is one of the key signs to the early stages of labor.
  • Longer tightening periods, anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds.
  • Contractions come at regular intervals and steadily increase in strength and frequency.

As the body transitions from early labor to delivery, you may experience other symptoms as well, such as hot flashes, vomiting, and lightheadedness.

Since Braxton Hicks contractions can still occur up to your last days of pregnancy, it may become more difficult to differentiate them from the real deal. Always call your doctor if you have any doubt or have questions, even if you think it may not be labour contractions. It’s always best to err on the side of safety.

What to Expect During Real Contractions and Labor

Some women don’t experience false labor contractions at all, while others experience them only closer to their due date. In addition to the differences in pain, one of the key ways to know you’re in labor is by timing how long the contractions last. Write down the frequency of these regular contractions rather than trying to remember on your own. It can often feel like the contractions last shorter or longer than what’s really happening.

Real contractions typically last between 45 and 60 seconds with only a few minutes (usually 3-5) until the next one. Alternatively, Braxton Hicks contractions may only last a few seconds with a much longer time in between but no set rhythm.

As the cervix dilates and you get closer to delivery, labor contractions last even longer, up to 90 seconds each with a much shorter time span in between. Some experience 30 seconds of rest before the next contraction, while others may have up to 2 minutes. As the contractions increase in frequency, the intensity goes up as well.

The level of pain and discomfort is likely what you imagined when you thought of how contractions would feel. However, there’s a range of emotions and feelings when you’re experiencing it firsthand. Talk to any mom and they’ll be honest with how the birthing experience was for them.

Their responses will likely be far more animated than the general explanation of “tightening of the uterus” or “excessive cramping.” It all may feel intimidating at first, but know that there’s no “normal” if you’re asking yourself “what do contractions feel like?”. It differs by individual and all you can do is keep breathing, relax as much as possible, and prepare for the arrival of your baby from the womb.

How to Ease Contractions During Labor and Delivery

There’s no telling if or when you’ll experience Braxton Hicks contractions. However, Braxton Hicks symptoms don’t last as long as real labor pains. If you want to alleviate them more quickly, changing positions often works well. Stand up and stretch or move around slowly to ease the dull ache.

During pregnancy you’ll never feel more in tune with your body and what it needs. Gentle movements are a good way to go whenever your body feels cramped, uncomfortable, or in pain. Once you transition to real contractions, you may experience this intensity for several hours and even into the next day, depending on your labor and delivery.

To help ease the pain and alleviate the anxiousness about going into labor, it’s important to have a few ways to help keep calm as much as possible. Concentrate on low-key activities that will serve as a welcome distraction to the severe pangs and allow you to pass the time more comfortably as you prepare for delivery. This may involve listening to soothing music, meditating, or taking a short walk outdoors.

Having a few ideas ready to go will come in handy when the moment arrives. You’ll have a list of activities already planned out to help you create an atmosphere that feels less stressful. Whenever you feel your first contractions start, it can feel unnerving, but when you have a better idea of what to expect, it won’t seem as alarming.

Monitoring Contractions

When comparing Braxton Hicks vs. real contractions, keep in mind the frequency can shift in an instant, especially if you are experiencing “false labor” contractions up until your due date. An increased consistency of contractions signals that the time for delivery is getting nearer. When they shift to labor contractions, that’s the signal it may be time you’re ready to go to the hospital.

Your doctor will ask about your contractions to determine how close you are to delivery. They may not have you come in right away if your contractions are regular but still several minutes apart. Knowing how to count contractions is crucial so make it a point to write down how far apart they are and how many you’ve had. Also, mark how long the contractions last and gauge the intensity level on a scale from 1-10.

Generally speaking, it’s time to go to the hospital when they are five to ten minutes apart with high intensity. Although, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to pregnancy and giving birth. Contractions aren’t the only signal that it’s time to go to the hospital or call your doctor. If you experience bleeding, sudden swelling, or high blood pressure, these are all symptoms that require medical attention right away.

With first-time moms, especially, it’s natural to be nervous and unsure. All the information and preparation in the world can’t fully make you ready for when you’re in the moment. If you’re unsure or feel more comfortable seeing your doctor, continue to take notes of your contractions and head to the hospital. When there, they’ll decide whether to admit you or send you back home.

Stay Informed and Connect with Other Moms

The best thing to do is get as much information from your doctor as possible. Knowing the basics of what Braxton Hicks contractions feel like vs. labor is important. This will you to mentally prepare for what’s ahead and allow you to feel more relaxed. Also, connect with other moms throughout your pregnancy and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Each stage of pregnancy comes with different things to learn and symptoms to pay attention to. Reaching out to others for help and speaking to your doctor when you’re unsure is part of the experience. You won’t be the first to need guidance and definitely won’t be the last. Building a supportive community around you is valuable.

Pregnancy is something that millions of women experience, but your own pregnancy is personal to you. Your experience is like no other. The pain of contractions may be minimal to start with or may be intense from the beginning. There’s no way to know for sure how your body will react.

When all is said and done and the last contractions have subsided, the only left to focus on is welcoming your new baby to your world.


We aim to provide you with the most honest and credible information possible. This article was reviewed for accuracy by The Honest Team and was written based on trusted sources that are linked at the bottom of the article.