Whether it’s your first, second or third baby, each pregnancy comes with its own unique experience. You can read all the books and blogs, and have a clearly defined birth plan – but you can’t truly prepare for your birth experience because nothing is guaranteed.
I remember the feeling of anxiousness and being slightly fearful of the unknown with my first born. Was that just a cramp or was it something more? Would I know when it was the right time to go to the hospital? What does a contraction even feel like?
I was reflecting with my husband recently on how much changes with each pregnancy. You become a little more relaxed with each baby and my hospital bag wasn’t even completely packed until I went into labour with number three!
We were laughing about the fact that I even went to bed with a full face of makeup on, waiting on the arrival of my first born. Each night was spent lying in bed wondering if the slightest movement would turn into something more.
Many women talk about experiencing Braxton Hicks or a ‘false alarm’ during the later stages of pregnancy. Whilst I didn’t experience these false contractions myself, I can see why this would alarm first timers and send them packing their hospital bags.
So what are Braxton Hicks?
In medical terms, Braxton Hicks are intermittent uterine contractions. They can start in early pregnancy, however you probably won’t notice them until sometime after halfway and into the third trimester – in fact some women never notice them!
Braxton Hicks are basically your body’s way of getting ready for the actual birth, but they are not a sign that labour has begun, or necessarily that it is getting ready to begin.
What do Braxton Hicks feel like?
Your uterus, lower abdominal area or groin will tighten or squeeze for approximately 30 to 60 seconds (sometimes as long as 2 minutes), and then relaxes again. These contractions are usually irregular, and don’t often hurt too badly – though they may be uncomfortable, and on the occasion can cause some pain.
They can usually be described as:
- Irregular in intensity
- More uncomfortable than painful
- Braxton Hicks do not increase in intensity or frequency, and tend to taper off before they disappear altogether. In short, if your contractions are easing up in any way, they are most likely Braxton Hicks.
How to deal with the pain of Braxton Hicks
We need to keep in mind here, that all women have different pain thresholds. What could be incredibly painful for one mother, may not be for the other.
Here are a few things to try if you are experiencing significant discomfort:
- Try taking a walk or resting if you have been overly active
- Drink plenty of water, or sip on cups of herbal tea to calm your system
- Meditation or relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or mental relaxation
- Relaxing in a warm bath for up to 30 minutes
When should I be concerned?
Like any stage during pregnancy, if you have concerns it is important to reach out to your doctor, obstetrician or midwife. Contact a health care professional if you haven’t reached 37 weeks and the contractions are increasing in frequency, are more painful, or you have any of the signs of preterm labour:
- Increasing vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding or spotting
- Increasing lower back pain or pelvic pressure
- More than four contractions an hour
- Menstrual-like cramping or abdominal pain
So what do true labour contractions feel like?
For most women, labour contractions happen somewhere around the 40-week mark. This is when your body releases a hormone called oxytocin, which stimulates your uterus to contract. Real contractions tighten the top part of your uterus to push your baby downward into the birth canal, in preparation for delivery. They also thin your cervix to help your baby eventually get through.
Often, the feeling of a true contraction can be described as a wave of pain – starting low, rising until it peaks and finally fading until the next. If you touch your abdomen, it will likely feel hard during a contraction.
Unlike Braxton Hicks, labour pain will likely be consistent (for example, 5 minutes apart) and the time between each will get shorter and shorter as you get closer to birth. Real contractions will get more painful as they continue… so if you think you are in labour, start timings those contractions and head to the hospital as soon as it’s ‘time’.