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  • When Your Baby Bump Tightens or Feel Hard: Is It a Contraction? Are You in Labor?

    There is no known cause, but doctors believe Braxton Hicks contractions are a way of the uterus to “practice” for actual labor.
    by Rachel Perez .
When Your Baby Bump Tightens or Feel Hard: Is It a Contraction? Are You in Labor?
PHOTO BY iStock
  • A lot of pregnant women, especially those who are pregnant the first time, always ask this question: Is it normal for your baby bump to feel hard? “Is it a contraction? Am I in labor?” are typical follow-up questions when one’s belly starts to tighten more often — and panic sets in when it is not your due date yet. 

    Uterine contractions are one of the signs a pregnant woman may be in labor. It means a woman’s cervix has started to thin and dilate or open — that is why contractions (and by association, labor) hurt. The cervix reaches full dilation at 10 centimeters, which means the baby can now pass through the vaginal canal.

    What are Braxton Hicks contractions

    Sometimes the belly “tightening” or menstrual pain-like cramps can confuse pregnant women because there is such a thing as false contractions. It is also commonly known as Braxton Hicks, named after John Braxton Hicks, the English doctor who first described it in 1972. So how do you know it is false contractions?

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    Braxton Hicks are irregular

    Braxton Hicks are contractions that remain infrequent and unpredictable. There are no regular time intervals or pattern that may help you predict when it will happen next. Some women experience Braxton Hicks as early as during their second trimester of pregnancy, starting at Week 16 or Week 20.

    As the pregnancy progresses, Braxton Hicks contractions become more noticeable during the third trimester. It may also be more challenging to differentiate them from real labor contractions as you near your due date.

    Braxton Hicks don’t increase in intensity

    Braxton Hicks happens when the muscles of the uterus tighten for approximately 15 to 30 seconds or as long as two minutes. They usually go away on its own or when you shift positions. The intensity of the contractions does not feel stronger as time passes — the intensity tapers off instead. False labor contractions are also mostly painless, but they can be uncomfortable. Some women barely notice it, but other pregnant women also say Braxton Hicks can be strong and painful but only on occasion.

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    Why Braxton Hicks contractions happen

    According to the American Pregnancy Association, Braxton Hicks are also called “practice contractions” because it allows pregnant women to practice labor breathing exercises and use it when real labor contractions occur. Experts believe they “practice” the uterine muscles to get ready for actual labor.

    There are no known causes of Braxton Hicks, and they can happen anytime. Some doctors caution pregnant women are more likely to experience false labor contractions at the end of the day when they’re dehydrated or have a full bladder, and during or after physical activity such as pregnancy exercise or sex. Sometimes, pregnant women experience false labor contractions just by touching and caressing their baby bump.

    How to get relief from Braxton Hicks contractions

    Typically, Braxton Hicks contractions disappear on its own. Changing positions, taking a walk or a bath, listening to relaxing music, napping, or resting alleviates the discomfort or pain. If the false labor contractions happened because you’re dehydrated, drinking a couple of glasses or having a snack should do the trick. Some preggos drink a warm cup of tea or milk for relief. Having a prenatal massage also helps.

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    Try to take slow, deep breaths, too, to help cope with the discomfort or pain. Relaxation exercises, such as those taught in birthing classes, may not help Braxton Hicks contractions disappear.

    Braxton Hicks vs. real labor contractions

    False labor contractions or Braxton Hicks are irregular contractions that do not increase in intensity or frequency. You may feel discomfort or pain only in your lower abdomen. It should disappear on its own, or changing positions, resting, drinking a glass of water, or taking pain medication should be able to alleviate it.

    Real labor starts when contractions come at regular intervals and usually last about 30 to 70 seconds each. Gradually, they will happen in intervals that become closer together, but the intensity continuously increases and gets stronger. You may feel pain and some discomfort coming from your lower back to the front of your abdomen that no pain medication can completely resolve.

    The easiest way to check if you are having false labor contractions is when the pain stops, or the tightening relaxes after you change positions or take a rest, advises Dr. Maynila Domingo, M.D., a board member of the Bayside Council of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a clinical associate professor at the University of the Philippines-Manila.

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    When to alert your doctor about Braxton Hicks contractions

    If you’re at full-term or 38 weeks and having more regular, alert your doctor if you’re your contractions are becoming stronger, longer, or more regular. Other signs of labor usually accompany real labor contractions. Go to the hospital right away if you’re in severe pain due to the contractions, your water already broke, or you have vaginal bleeding. (Read more about signs of labor here and when to rush to the hospital here).

    If you’re not yet full-term, call your doctor right away AND head to the hospital your contractions are becoming more frequent, at least four in an hour, or more intense that you feel out of breath after each one. You might be experiencing preterm labor. Observe also for these other signs of preterm labor:

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    • Having contractions of at least four to six per hour, or every 10 minutes even if they’re not as painful
    • Abdominal pain or menstrual-like cramping
    • Vaginal bleeding or spotting
    • Increased or changes vaginal discharge. Watch for watery discharge, which may indicate that your water bag may be ruptured and your amniotic fluid is leaking! If you notice a pink- or blood-tinged mucus-like discharge, it may be a bloody show as your mucus plug might have detached. (Read more about the mucus plug here.)
    • Pressure in the pelvic or lower abdominal area as if your baby is pushing down
    • Low back pain, especially if you’ didn’t have it before or if’ it’s dull or rhythmic

    If you’re not sure if what you’re experiencing is false or real labor contractions, it’s okay to head to the hospital to be safe. If you feel anything amiss during your pregnancy, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about it.

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