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There are two types of contractions that occur during pregnancy: Braxton Hicks and signs of true labor. These differ in their intensity, duration, and ability to be relieved by changing position. If you believe you are experiencing true labor, it's important to contact your healthcare provider right away.

What Are Braxton Hicks Contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions start occurring during the final months of pregnancy. In a sense, they are nothing more than practice contractions. These are different from true labor contractions in that they are not associated with dilation or thinning of the cervix. Instead, Braxton Hicks contractions are seen with false labor. They are your body's way of getting ready for true labor.
These are irregular in occurrence and are normally painless. They appear unpredictably and sporadically, and can be rhythmic and of mild intensity. In the last month of pregnancy, Braxton Hicks contractions may occur more frequently -- sometimes every 10 to 20 minutes -- and with greater intensity than before.

Recognizing True Labor Contractions (Birth Contractions)

It's often impossible to say exactly when "true" labor begins. In some women, the early contractions of true labor may feel like the Braxton Hicks contractions that have been going on for a few weeks. The only sure signs of labor are consistent contractions of the uterus that become increasingly longer, stronger, and closer together. They may be as far apart as every ten minutes or so in the beginning, but they won't stop or ease up no matter what you do. In time, they become more painful and closer together. In some cases, however, the onset of strong, regular contractions comes with little or no warning -- it's different for every woman and with every pregnancy.
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience any of these signs of true labor:
  • The contractions intensify with activity, rather than easing up, and aren't relieved with a change in position
  • Pain begins in the lower back and spreads to the lower abdomen (stomach) or vice versa
  • Contractions become increasingly more frequent and painful; sometimes, they also become more regular, but not always
  • "Bloody show" (cervical mucus) is present and pinkish or blood-streaked
  • Your membranes rupture (the "water breaks").
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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