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How To Tell The Difference Between True Labour Vs. False Labour

Updated: Feb 1

When you are pregnant, you know that there are a lot of changes that happen to your body. It seems like every day brings something new, from morning sickness to swelling to mood swings.

One of the more confusing things that can happen during pregnancy is Braxton-Hicks contractions. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how they differ from real labour contractions.


False Labour

False labour, also known as Braxton Hicks Contractions, is the name given to the irregular and often painless contractions that some women experience during pregnancy. These are not dangerous, but they can be very uncomfortable. It is important to know the difference between Braxton Hicks Contractions and real labour, which happen in the later stages of pregnancy as baby begins to prepare to make their arrival.

The main difference between Braxton Hicks and “real labour” is that these false labour contractions do not progress or intensify. They may come and go, but they do not become more frequent or worsen over time. This “false labour” can be unsettling because it may feel, to someone who has never experienced it before, to be quite intense but there are usually several key differences.


What are Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Braxton-Hicks contractions are sporadic uterine contractions that can occur any time typically after 20 weeks gestation. They are named after John Braxton Hicks, the English doctor who first described them in 1872. They are also sometimes called “false labour.” 

True labour contractions usually start infrequently (maybe every 15 minutes or so) and are nearly painless (might feel like some mild period cramps). However, as time goes on they become more frequent, longer, and stronger lasting 60-90 seconds every 2-3 minutes.

Braxton Hicks contractions do not occur at regular intervals as true labour contractions do. They also do not get stronger with time or doing certain activities like true labour contractions do. 


What causes Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are caused by the tightening of the uterine muscles, just as regular contractions are. While the exact cause remains unknown, there are some common triggers to be aware of.


Possible causes include:

Dehydration: Pregnant women should aim to drink 1 oz of water for every 2lbs of body weight of  fluid per day – so, keep yourself hydrated by carrying around a water bottle.

Activity: You might notice Braxton-Hicks contractions later in a day if you’ve been standing up or exercising a lot. Sometimes, “strenuous exercise” may just mean trying to squeeze into your maternity jeans. That’s normal and okay.

Sex: Orgasm may trigger uterine contractions because your body produces oxytocin after an orgasm. Oxytocin makes muscles, such as the uterus, contract. Your partner’s semen contains prostaglandins that may also bring on contractions.

Full bladder: The pressure of a full bladder on the uterus can cause contractions or cramps. 

Low Magnesium: cramping and muscle tightness can be a triggering factor for some people – make sure your nutrition is keeping up with the higher demands of pregnancy. (more on this in a future blog!)


How can you tell the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and real contractions?


Frequency

The best way to tell if you’re having Braxton-Hicks contractions is to pay attention to how often they’re occurring and how strong they are. As mentioned, they are usually infrequent and painless at first. If you notice that they start to occur more frequently or if they become stronger and more painful, you’re likely in labour. 


Timing

Another way to tell the difference between Braxton-Hicks contractions and true labour contractions is by timing them. True labour contractions tend to follow a regular pattern while Braxton-Hicks do not. You can time your contractions using a stopwatch or by using a contraction timer app on your phone (I love the Gentle Birth App!) 


Pain

Braxton Hicks contractions can cause discomfort, but are often more mild than real contractions. They tend to feel more like mild period cramps or just a stiffening of your abdominal muscles.


During genuine contractions, some women report severe, lower back discomfort. If you already have lower back pain, the contraction pains will be obvious since they’ll be more powerful and will increase and decrease like a wave.


*Advice from Lara: if you are experiencing back or hip pain at any point, it’s time to work with a Pelvic Health Physiotherapist! They are an incredible resource to help make your birth optimal!


Duration

Braxton Hicks tend to last a few seconds but can sometimes last many minutes without letting up. Contractions are more timeable and predictable where Braxton Hicks seem to come out of no where when you’re moving around and can go as fast as they came.


What should I do if I’m having Braxton-Hicks Contractions? 


If you’re experiencing Braxton-Hicks contractions, there are a few things you can do to help ease them: 

  1. Drink lots of fluids: Dehydration can sometimes trigger false labour, so ensure you’re drinking plenty of water throughout the day.  

  2. Try changing positions: If you’re sitting or standing, try lying down on your left side until the contraction subsides. 

  3. Use relaxation techniques: Take some deep breaths or try some gentle stretches. Relaxing your muscles may help stop or lessen the intensity of the contraction. 

  4. Hop in the tub: this is typically a good way to relax your whole body too!


Do Braxton Hicks contractions mean labour is near?

Not necessarily. Braxton Hicks contractions occur during the preliminary stages of labour or in later pregnancy. While your body is starting to get ready for delivery, you may have Braxton Hicks contractions a few weeks to several months before actual labour begins. There are not many ways to actually “exercise your uterus” so these practice contractions help to tone up the muscle creating strength. (Red raspberry leaf tea is also said to help with this!)


When to go to the hospital for contractions

Many women wonder when to go to the hospital for contractions. The answer is different for every woman, but there are some general guidelines you can follow.

If your contractions are coming every five minutes or less and lasting at least a minute each, then it’s time to go to the hospital. If they’re accompanied by pain in your lower back or abdomen, that’s another sign you should head to the hospital. 


4-1-1 Rule: Contractions 4 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute, for at least 1 hour.

If you’re less than 37 weeks into your pregnancy, if the contractions are painful, or if your water has broken, it’s especially important to get to the hospital sooner than later if that is where you plan to give birth.


If you’re not sure whether or not you should go to the hospital, you can err on the side of caution and call your doctor, Labour & Birth unit, or midwife. They will be able to advise you on what to do based on your individual situation.


What’s Next? 


Braxton Hicks contractions can be confusing for anyone who hasn’t experienced them before but hopefully this article has shed some light on what they are and how to tell them apart from real labour contractions. Remember, if you’re ever in doubt, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider for guidance!


If you’re pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, learning about labour and delivery is an important step in preparing for your baby’s arrival. The Empowered Birth online prenatal class is the perfect way to get started and is designed specifically for Canadian parents! This comprehensive class covers everything from pregnancy hormones to  postpartum, and provides vetted information and advice from a Registered Nurse and guest experts, all from the comfort of your own home!


Enrolling in the Empowered Birth online prenatal class is easy – just click on the link below! You can take the class at your own pace, and get all the support you need to confidently welcome your baby into the world. Click on the link and sign up today!

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