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Braxton Hicks vs. contractions: Why am I cramping?

By Ken Harris, OSF HealthCare

When you reach your third trimester, you might find yourself having cramps in your midsection. Do your cramps mean something is wrong with you or your baby’s health? Are you going into labor? What should you do?

There are different kinds of cramps you can experience at this time in the pregnancy. You could be experiencing true contractions, which means labor is beginning. If you’re not 37 weeks pregnant, yet, you’re going into early labor with a premature baby.

You also might be experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labor.

What are Braxton Hicks?

Braxton Hicks contractions have earned the name false labor because they have fooled many into thinking their labor has started. So, why do Braxton Hicks contractions occur?

“Nobody knows,” said Vanessa Foster, MD, an OB/GYN at OSF HealthCare. “The thought is that they’re practice contractions. Your body’s just getting ready to learn how to be in labor, but nobody knows for sure.”

So, where do you feel Braxton Hicks contractions?

“Braxton Hicks are usually isolated in one spot,” Dr. Foster said. “Some people say it happens at the bottom of their abdomen. For some it’s at the top. Some people have cramping in their back. It’s just different for everybody.”

Having frequent Braxton Hicks doesn’t necessarily mean labor is coming soon. If you’re worried, though, call your provider so they can address your concerns.

When do Braxton Hicks start?

False labor contractions are most commonly felt in the third trimester, but some women begin experiencing them in the second trimester. It varies from person to person, as does the intensity and frequency of the cramping.

How long do Braxton Hicks last?

A Braxton Hicks contraction typically lasts 90-120 seconds.

Braxton Hicks contractions usually go away in 20 minutes or when you change positions.

Braxton Hicks vs. baby moving

Your baby’s early movements tend to feel more like tickles in your abdomen. But when that baby gets larger and stronger later on in the pregnancy, those movements can be painful. So how do you know if you’re feeling the baby kicking and not false labor or contractions?

Contractions come back at fairly regular intervals over time, while a baby kicking or punching is likely to be more irregular. During contractions, your entire abdomen will be hard to the touch as the muscles all tighten.

If the sensation moves or goes away when you touch it, you’re probably dealing with your baby punching, kicking or stretching in your womb.

Braxton Hicks vs. labor contractions

Thankfully, Braxton Hicks contractions differ from labor contractions, so you can tell the difference, if you know what you’re looking for.

While Braxton Hicks contractions are concentrated in a single spot, true labor contractions are felt throughout your lower back and abdomen.

“Labor contractions feel like your abdomen is doing a crunch that you can’t control,” Dr. Foster said. “It feels like your muscles are literally contracting and you can’t control it. Everything slowly tightens up and then it slowly relaxes.”

And as labor progresses, contractions typically become stronger and closer together. They won’t stop doing this until your baby is delivered.

Another way to tell the difference: Braxton Hicks are often described as being uncomfortable. On the other hand, labor contractions are described as painful.

When to be concerned about Braxton Hicks

While cramping in the third trimester is normal, it can also be a sign of something wrong.

“If you have more than six episodes of cramping an hour, and you are before 37 weeks, call the doctor,” Dr. Foster said. “You may need to go to the hospital to make sure you’re not going into early labor.”

Also, if you’re before 37 weeks, and that cramping is associated with bleeding or increased vaginal discharge, go to the hospital, Dr. Foster added.

This article originally appeared on OSF HealthCare.

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