How to Tell Braxton Hicks Contractions from Labor Contractions

Is the pain you're feeling a false start -- or are you really in labor? Find out here!

Labor & Delivery: Signs of Real vs. False Labor

    As your body gets ready for the big delivery, your uterus is prepping too. So you might get a sense of what birth will be like as your uterus begins to contract on occasion to start practicing for the real deal. These labor-like pains are called false labor or Braxton Hicks contractions -- but it can often be pretty hard for you to tell the difference between these practice labor pains and the real thing.

    So how can you tell if you need to head to the hospital? If most of the following things are true, it's time to grab your bag and get ready to meet your baby.

      pregnant woman Alexandra Grablewski

      • You can practically set your watch by the contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions have irregular start and stop times, but you'll quickly see a pattern emerging if you're going into labor. "Braxton Hicks are very sporadic -- you can't necessarily time them predictively," says Siobhan Kubesh, a certified midwife with OBGYN North in Austin. "If it's a true contraction of active labor, you know exactly when the next one is coming."
      • They're getting stronger as time goes on. Braxton Hicks won't get more intense as time goes on, and are often described as more uncomfortable than down-right unbearable. But labor pains definitely progress. "Braxton Hicks are not organized contractions," says Paul du Treil, M.D., director of maternal and child health at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. "The uterus is just exercising for the the grand finale. In real labor, the crampy sensation progressively gets worse and worse."
      • They keep coming, even after you put your feet up and drink some water. Rest and hydration are often just what the doctor ordered if you're having contractions. "Overactive people often end up with Braxton Hicks contractions, because they're doing too much and they get dehydrated," says Bart Putterman, M.D., an ob-gyn at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston. "One of the first things we tell our patients is to go put their feet up and drink big glasses of water. If the contractions don't get better, they need to come in and get checked."
      • Your water broke or you've developed other unusual vaginal discharge. "Bloody mucus or a change in vaginal discharge increases the likelihood that it's real labor and not a false alarm," Dr. Putterman says.
      • You're pretty close to your due date. Braxton Hicks can occur at any time, but they're more common earlier in the last trimester, as your body begins the final countdown to birth day.
      • Your doctor thinks it's go time. If you've checked in with your doc and he says to hit the hospital, then you may be seeing your new little one in just a few short hours!

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