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Understanding False Labor Pain and Braxton Hicks Contractions

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Jan 28, 2023

Understanding False Labor Pain and Braxton Hicks Contractions

The latter part of a pregnancy is usually highly anticipated. Every unexpected pain, even if you’re close to your due date, feels like something may be wrong and should be dealt with medically. One such major pain is the labor pain contractions that stress most women.

Read on to learn more about true labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions (or false labor).

Sometimes, these are false alarms that trick you into thinking that the baby is making his or her way around in the 36th week of pregnancy.

Though, this is just how your body prepares you for the real pregnancy contractions. This article will prepare you for being able to judge which pain is the real deal and which is not. Also, what to do if you experience true labor pain.

What is False Labor Pain and Braxton-Hicks contractions?

In a way, false labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions are a warm-up before actual labor pain starts. It is nature’s way of telling you that the baby is gearing up to come out now. They are not accidental pains that don’t mean anything. The contractions start thinning the cervix as well, making way for the baby.

Also known as false labor pains, Braxton-Hicks contractions last for 30 seconds to sometimes even two minutes.

Though, false labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and can occur at random times. Most women do not feel pain when this happens, but a slight pain due to contractions can be felt in the lower abdominal area. This also means that pain intensity and frequency is much less during false labor pain as compared to true labor pain.

False labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions will not end with a baby in your hand. There is no real pattern to these false labor pains. They may occur after a super active day at the office or home or even if you’re relaxing in the afternoon. You will feel your abdominal region tighten when these false labor pains begin. Though, these are not always painful.

False alarms like this won’t be close together like in actual labor pain. That means false labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions happen at their own convenience and with no actual notice. For example, if you experience these contractions at 6 PM, chances are you won’t feel them at 6.05 PM or 6.10 PM.

Pain and Braxton Hicks Contractions

Other signs of False Labor Pain and Braxton Hicks contractions

Other signs to look for when distinguishing false labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions from actual labor pain is:

  1. These happen when you’ve had excessive activity like sex or had an extremely full bladder.
  2. There is a brownish discharge left on your underwear.
  3. You wake up with fluid all around. This is probably urine. If your water breaks, you won’t be able to control it.
  4. Your contractions respond to movement and stop.
  5. Here is how you can handle Braxton-Hicks contractions:

    1. Drink plenty of fluids like water, coconut water, fresh juices, and smoothies. Just make sure none of these makes you nauseous.
    2. Change your position or try walking. If you have been sitting for too long, get up and gently move around.
    3. If you have been active all day long at work or at home, give yourself a breather for some time.

    What are the actual labor pains?

    Unlike false labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions, true labor pains occur only after the 37th week. If you have been experiencing real labor pain before this, then you’re probably in preterm labor.

    When these pains start, your body releases a hormone, oxytocin, which stimulates uterine contractions. These contractions cause intense pain, which arises in regular, equal frequencies.

    If you’re experiencing true labor pains, then time them. If they come every five minutes with equally severe pain, then chances are you are in actual labor.

    These uterine contractions will push the baby forward in the birth canal to reach the eventually softening cervix. With each contraction, your cervix dilates. You need to be 10 centimeters dilated for delivery.

    Real labor pains come in waves of uncomfortable and unbearable aches. These start from your lower back, radiate to your lower abdomen and then stop. Though, every gush of pain can be fiercer than the last one.

    Look out for the following signs of true labor pains:

    1. There is pink or bloody mucus left on your underpants.
    2. You feel like the baby has descended way lower in your abdomen.
    3. Your water has broken. That means the amniotic fluid has leaked and has not stopped ever since. You cannot control this fluid, like urine.
    4. Your blood pressure has increased.
    5. It will suddenly feel easier to breathe or urinate, as the baby descends down.
    6. You may have an upset stomach or diarrhea.
    7. You have evenly spaced contractions.

    What to do if you’re experiencing labor pain

    • Avoid touching your pelvic floor consistently.
    • Practice breathing. This won’t lessen the pain but will make you better at handling it.
    • Ask your partner or the nurse to help you rub and soothe your lower back. This can help relieve some pain.
    • If you’re at home, immediately call your hospital. Save this as your emergency contact in your phone beforehand.
    • Prepare for actual labor by asking your doctor about epidurals. If there is time, discuss with your doctor your possible delivery options.
    • If you experience this pain before the 37th week of pregnancy, chances are you’re in preterm labor. Immediately get in touch with your doctor.
    • Do not prolong this pain by waiting until your cervix finally gets dilated 10 centimeters to go to the hospital. Call your medical center or hospital right after you feel the first trigger.

    Important points to remember

    1. Braxton-Hicks contractions are false labor pains, though consult your doctor once about how to deal with them if they are frequent in the span of a week.
    2. False labor pains are only prepping you for the real thing. It can help you better your breathing technique and ways to manage pain better. Use this time thoroughly or else the pain can feel unbearable when the time comes as you may be in a state of panic.
    3. The three things to identify Braxton-Hicks contractions are: frequency of contractions, pain response to movement, and discharge in your underpants.
    4. The three aspects to identify actual labor pain: regular pattern of contractions, intense pain travelling from the lower back to abdomen, and whether your water bag has broken.

    Key Takeaways

    Here is a simple table that can help you differentiate false labor pain and Braxton Hicks contractions from true labor:

    Braxton-Hicks Contractions Actual Labor Pains
    Contractions are irregular i.e they come and go Contractions are uniform and remain constant
    Contractions are not painful or bearable pain is experienced Contractions become more painful as time passes
    Contractions are felt in the abdominal region Contractions are felt in the back and then travel forward
    Cervix does not thin or dilate with contractions Cervix starts dilating with every contraction
    Occur in the second or third trimester Occur around 37th week of pregnancy and if earlier, it could be preterm labor
    Contractions subside with some movement or change in position Contractions remain despite movement or change in position



    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


    Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Jan 28, 2023

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