A pregnant woman’s lot is a mixed bag.  On one hand full of hope, optimism and joy at the impending child you’re about to bring into the world.  On the other there’s the physical pain and discomfort – coupled with the anxiety and worry about the impending child you’re about to bring into the world!

The last thing an expectant mom needs is another thing to worry about. 

Cue Dr Braxton Hicks…who brought us the knowledge that labor might not actually be labor after all.  Are those contractions true or false?  Do I pack my bag and go to the hospital or do I run a bath and drink herbal tea?

Well we hope to give you a bit of reassurance on that.  Read on.

What exactly is False Labor?

John Braxton-Hicks, an English physician, first described false labor contractions way back in 1872.  He noticed that many mothers-to-be experienced contractions without actually going into labor.  These contractions caused confusion about whether labor was really happening or not. 

In the days when almost 100% of births happened at home it wasn’t that big a deal.  However, now, with our most likely hospital-delivered babies, moms need to know whether to high-tail it to the maternity ward or not.

These Braxton-Hicks contractions are now commonly referred to as False Labor.

 

What causes Braxton Hicks False Labor Contractions? 

Braxton Hicks contractions are the body’s way of preparing itself for labor.  By contracting for one to two minutes your uterine muscles are toning themselves up for the exertion to come.

Ain’t nature wonderful!??! 😊 So don’t get too down about it.  We know they’re painful and uncomfortable but, without them, your labor would probably be a lot longer and more draining (if you can believe that!!).

 

“False” False Labor

No, not a Vanilla Ice follow up hit from the 90s but, in fact, another thing to throw a spanner of confusion into the works of the pre-maternal brain…

Yep. There is another kind of false labor; abdominal pain caused by strain on the ligaments supporting your uterus.  It’s generally due to the effort of holding up all that extra pregnancy weight .

Normally this abdominal strain lasts just for a few seconds to a couple of minutes and is caused by a sudden movement such as standing up or coughing.

Ease the discomfort by taking a short break from the activity you are doing.  If in bed roll over more slowly supporting the belly as you go.  If they persist a hot bath may help.

  

What do False Labor contractions feel like? 

False labor pains or Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular uterine contractions that can be felt by a pregnant woman as early as the 4th month of pregnancy.

They are characterized by a sudden tightening of the abdomen that lasts for a few seconds and then disappears.

Many women describe these sensations as feeling like mild menstrual cramps.

These contractions do not occur consecutively, and the intensity does not increase over time. It may also be felt more on the lower abdomen than in the back.

False labor can stop with rest, change of position or an activity which slightly shifts the position of your baby.

On the other hand, “True Labor” has increasing frequency and intensity as time goes by.  These contractions may cause back and lower abdomen pressure or pain.  Ultimately, the contractions result in dilatation of the cervix and delivery of the baby.

 

False Labor v True Labor – how to tell the difference

Good point Pheebs. Although, not particularly helpful. Sorry. 

Check out our Real Labor V False Labor chart below and hopefully that will be more useful to you.

SUMMARY TABLE OF FALSE VS TRUE LABOR

Let’s get all scientific for a mo’.  We saw a neat explanation on the Bloomlife website and thought we’d adapt some of it in our article as it makes a lot of sense. 

In true labor the muscles of the abdomen work in unison to squeeze that little passenger out.  The activation of all the muscles occurs in harmony – hence the intensity of the contraction is higher.

However, in false labor the muscles are doing whatever the heck they please.  There’s no synchronization and the contractions feel different; less intense.

 

“Aha! So that’s what it’s all about!!!” I hear you cry! 😊 

At least I did anyway…

Symptoms of False Labor

It’s worth reiterating the symptoms of false labor again just to be really clear:

  1. No Bloody Show – bloody or pink discharge is a sign of true labor. No discharge, or brown discharge is likely false labor.  If you didn’t see a blood tinged mucus in your undies it’s likely that your cervix is still closed and the mucous plug on it is still intact.
  2. Pain Localized in Lower Abdomen – in true labor, pain may start in the lower back and then can wrap around your abdomen putting pressure on your pelvis
  3. Subsides with rest or activity – false labor usually stops on its own or may also be due to rest, change of activity or position. While true labor persists and progresses in intensity and frequency
  4. Ammonia-like discharge – bit gross sorry but if you wake up in a pool of yeuky smelling fluid that’s likely your bladder has discharged in the night. Amniotic fluid (what comes out when your waters break) is odorless.
  5. Irregular Contractions – irregular contractions that do not increase in intensity and can be relieved by rest/activity are a sign of false labor.

 

What triggers False Labor?

While it is a natural part of pregnancy, False Labor may sometimes also be set off by:

  • Strenuous physical activities such as climbing a flight of stairs
  • Having sexual intercourse
  • Full bladder upon waking up in the morning
  • If you are down with a fever or dehydrated
  • Movement of your fetus inside the womb

How early do Braxton Hicks contractions start?

Braxton Hicks contractions actually start before you can feel them.  In your first pregnancy they may begin to be felt from about 16 weeks.  They may occur a little earlier in subsequent pregnancies.

 

Does False Labor lead to Real Labor?

No. False Labor is just the preparation, or toning up, prior to True Labor.  Think of it as running training prior to a marathon.  One happens before the other, but they don’t necessarily follow on straight away.

 

Does False Labor help you to dilate?

Not really.  As above False Labor is toning to get ready for real labor. In fact, the basic definition of the difference between true or false labor is whether or not your cervix is dilating.  If it starts to dilate and thin out then you’re heading into true labor.  So false labor, in itself, does not cause the cervix to dilate.

 

How to stop False Labor?

How can we stop these contractions? They’re a pain in the … er….lower abdomen and they’re not real labor anyways?

Sorry but we can’t ‘stop’ them happening.

However, we can alleviate the discomfort.  They should usually calm down by themselves fairly quickly, but the following may also help ease the pain:

  • Go for a short stroll – Braxton Hicks contractions often subside if you change position or move about
  • Or, conversely, if you have already been moving then take a break and have a rest. Often just changing what you are doing can have a positive effect.
  • Take a warm bath and unwind
  • If you have the chance get a massage. If you can get a massage have one anyway. Braxton Hicks or not! You deserve it.

If in doubt check it out

We’ve been poked and prodded, scanned and screened, cooed and ‘ahhh’ed over for months now.  The last thing we need is an unnecessary hospital trip.  Rather we would love to rest (if our families give us some peace) and save our strength for the task to come. Or, we may still be holding down our day jobs and (yet another) hospital trip is not going to go down well.

Not to mention we don’t want to trouble the medical staff or our families.  Well not tooooo often anyway (ever heard of the girl who cried wolf?)

This is probably the main cause of anxiety over false labor.  As The Clash once sang “Should I stay or should I go?” (check it out if you’ve not heard it!).  Should we stay and rest and not trouble anyone? But what if it really is labor and I end up giving birth in the car!

Well.  Hopefully the information above helps you to make a more informed decision.

The golden rule though is “If in doubt check it out”.  Better to trouble the hospital than have something go wrong on you.  At least then you’ll know for certain.

One thing’s for certain, make sure to go to your doctor or midwife if you experience any pregnancy red flags such as:

  • Presence of bright red vaginal bleeding
  • Continuous leakage of fluid from the vagina or if you feel like your water has broken
  • Strong and continuous contractions that happen every 5 minutes for 1 hour
  • Contractions that can’t be relieved by walking, activity or resting
  • Change in the movement of your baby and if you feel like movements are <10 within an hour 

It’s not really Dr Braxton Hick’s fault….

…. after he only documented what was already there.  However, we thought you might find this little carton as a bit of light relief.  😊

Check out these other labor related articles we think you might like

7 Ways to get your body ready for Labor

Precipitous labor: The misunderstood downside to very fast births

Using a breast pump to induce labor