Women's Healthcare Topics

True Labor Vs. Braxton Hicks Contractions

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Perhaps the biggest question on most women's minds during pregnancy is whether they will be able to identify true vs. false labor. The answer is tricky. Even experienced mothers sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between real labor and false labor. Chances are however once you are in true labor you will know it. It is however common for many women to experience false labor or pre-labor that feels like the real thing. Here are some tips for distinguishing between real and false labor.

Braxton-Hicks Contractions - False Labor

Braxton-Hicks contractions are your body's way of preparing for labor and delivery. Most women experience Braxton-Hicks as menstrual like cramping or brief tightening in the lower abdomen. This feeling tends to be sporadic, meaning it comes and goes at various times. Braxton-Hicks  while common sometimes do result in discomfort or pain. This is part of the reason so many women have a difficult time distinguishing between false and true labor.

False labor contractions may occur regularly at 5 minute intervals, but generally only last about 30 seconds or so. It isn't uncommon for women who have had children before to misinterpret Braxton-Hicks as the real thing and show up at the hospital, only to be sent home a short while later.

Here are some signs you may be in false labor:

  • Contractions are irregular.

  • Contractions don't get closer together after a certain period of time.

  • Contractions are usually weak and don't get stronger over time.

  • Contractions are usually felt in the front only instead of in the back.

  • Contractions may slow down or stop completely if you lay down, drink fluids or take a hot shower.

True labor pain is characterized by contractions that come regularly, gradually strengthen over time and do not go away if you change position.

Here are some signs of true labor:

  • Contractions usually last between four and six minutes apart and may last up to 60 seconds or more.

  • Contractions generally get stronger over time.

  • Vaginal pressure or back pain accompanies contractions.

  • Contractions continue to get stronger regardless of your position or whether you consume fluids.

  • Contractions are accompanied by a bloody show or the mucous plug.

Your water may also break during true labor. If in doubt, it never hurts to call your physician. Most doctors will recommend that if contractions occur regularly and last more than thirty seconds, you should try first drinking lots of fluids and lying down. If this doesn't stop the contractions you may be in labor. You might avoid timing your contractions until they feel quite strong and are regular. Early labor, particularly for first time mothers, can last hours and hours, and you may find it tedious to time early contractions during labor.

Whenever in doubt it never hurts to get checked out. Don't worry about feeling silly or embarrassed. Even the most experienced moms check into the hospital with false labor contractions. What's more important is you make it to your doctor in time before it is too late. The very worst thing that can happen is you are sent home to labor on your own for a few more hours (or days if in false labor). Think of it this way, you'll have plenty of fun stories to tell your family and children after you do go into labor and deliver your baby!


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