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Contractions Vs Braxton Hicks. How to tell the difference.

There is nothing better than knowing whether you’re in active labor or whether you’re just experiencing Braxton Hicks.

It can be difficult to determine what is what. I have gathered information to help you identify what you are experiencing and how best to manage it.

When I was pregnant at 39 weeks with my second son, I awoke at 3 am with what I believed to be Braxton Hicks.

After speaking to both my mom and sister who is also a mom of five, they both convinced me it sounded like Braxton hicks.

So I continued my breathing and stayed at home until the pain was unbearable.

Let’s just say the baby was born 3 hours later naturally with no pain relief.

So, what is the difference between Braxton Hicks and real contractions I hear you ask?

I will try and explain the differences so that it will help you determine which of the two you may be experiencing.

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Active labour signs


*Longer, closer together and stronger.

*They have an average length of around 60 seconds.

*Around 3-5 minutes apart. Although, in early labour, they may be 5-7 minutes apart.

*They’ll be easily predictable and timetabled. Whereas, if noted in early labour, they would’ve been unpredictable by being 5, then 4, then 7, then 10 minutes apart.

*In early labour you might be walking and talking through the contractions, whereas they become more intense and require a focus.

*You’ll have to use breathing techniques or other coping strategies such as using a shower, tub or having a massage.

*If you’ve had a shower, bath, rest or glass of water and they don’t even subside slightly, you’ll probably be in active labour.

*You may feel the need, wherever it could be, to set up a birth space.

*You might feel as if you can’t do it and feel overwhelmingly emotional.

*You’ll probably lose some mucus or have a bloody show.

*If your cervix has dilated to 6cm, then you’ll be classed as active labour.

*You may experience other symptoms like hot and cold sweats, diarrhoea, shakes, vomiting or your waters might break.

Related: The Hyperemesis Gravidarum diet that got me through my fifth pregnancy

Pregnancy and cervix dilations

All pregnancies are different and just in the same way, it’ll take every woman a different amount of time to reach the 6cm – which is the textbook definition of active labour.

Things will go much faster once you hit the 6cm goal mark.

Birth consists of no maths

Just because it took you 6 hours to reach 6cm, this does not mean it’ll take you another 4 hours to reach 10cm (the pushing stage).

It could take more or less time.

It all depends on the baby and mum also has a small part to do with it at this point. Stay relaxed and calm.

How to cope with active labour

Baby needs you to be as chilled out as possible, and we really can’t control when the baby will come.

It can be a struggle with knowing what to do when in active labour, but here are some tips:

-Bath or shower
– Walking
– Birth ball
– Massage
– Counter pressure
– Music
– Eating and drinking as much as you like
– Rocking
– Singing
– Birth affirmations
– Resting
– Squatting
– Swaying
– Sitting on the toilet
– Aromatherapy
– Moaning

A good rule of when you’re in active labour and need to go to the hospital is the 411 rule.

If your contractions are 4 minutes apart, lasting for 1 minute and have been going on for an hour or so.

Then baby is on its way and you need to head to the hospital and think of your birth space.

Related: The Best Free Online Birth Class

How to tell if the lady of your life (or stranger lady) is in labor

Her emotions, body language and the way she is interacting will be a big giveaway.

If she is able to chat, is in a great mood and seems to be coping well, then you might need to wait a little while.

If contractions are 3-4 minutes apart and she is slow-moving with minimal conversation then go to the hospital.

Braxton Hicks Signs

These contractions will happen in your stomach or back and feel more like period cramps rather than happening down in your cervix or through your whole body.

They’ll vary in intensity and have no pattern instead of getting stronger and more intense.

If you move around, the contractions will stop instead of continuing to get closer together and stronger.

The intervals are random and may look like this; 3minutes, 9 minutes, 7 minutes, 2 minutes. Whereas real labour contractions get closer together and stronger and will look like this; 9 minutes, 9 minutes, 7 minutes, 6 minutes etc.

If you eat, the contractions will stop or putter out. But in active labour they’ll continue to get stronger and closer together.

The pain will subside if you take a bath instead of continuing.

Braxton Hicks are generally painless, will make your belly feel tight and are more concentrated on your abdomen.

They also don’t make changes to your cervix.

Being on your feet a lot, tired or dehydrated might bring these contractions on.

If you want to try to subside these symptoms, drink more water, stop and rest (preferably on your left side) and change position (from sitting to standing or vice versa).

However, if none of these strategies are working then it’s best to call your doctor or midwife to rule out preterm labour.

Related: MILKOLOGY: The Most Affordable Online Breastfeeding Class

When should the midwife be called?

If you’re having a home birth or you feel like you wouldn’t reach the hospital in time, then you need to ring your midwife to come to your home as soon as you feel like you’re in active labor.

How should contractions be timed?

As previously mentioned, there is no linear in birth.

Although, all you have to do is time the minutes between the start of one contraction to the start of the next one.

It’s also useful to keep track of how long those contractions last. This will be helpful in your indication of how your labour is progressing.

There are a few contraction apps which will help you with this if you don’t have the energy or time to note them down.

Try not to become too obsessive over contractions and the timings.

Even though it can be quite exciting to track, birth is not linear. It would be best to track them when things have seemed to change.

So, some mums might find it useful to track her contractions once every hour (from 10-12) if she has an indication of being in labour.

However, at 11:30, things might pick up or change and she might change the tracking to every 30 minutes instead of every hour.

The decision to stop with contraction timing should be as soon as you decide to get into the car to go to the hospital.

How long is a first-time mum in labor?

It varies from person to person; remember, nobody is the same! 15-17 hours is usually the average for a first-time mum.

Although it usually happens a lot quicker or longer than that, you’ll never be able to know.


I went from 3-10cm within 3 hours, so it was pretty quick! This doesn’t mean it will be this quick for you, or you might even be quicker!

When will my waters break?

With my first baby my waters broke at home and then again at the hospital.

I was really shocked when I asked the midwife she explained that it was my forewaters and hindwaters.

My second baby was born minutes after my waters broke on the bed, laying on my side. It was a very near miss for my husband!

When I was overdue with my 3rd baby it seemed that the waters had been leaking for days and I hadn’t even noticed thinking it was just discharge. When checked at the hospital I was told I needed to be induced ASAP as there was no amniotic fluid left.

My waters with my 4th and 5th again broke seconds before they crowned, I remember with my 5th the waters breaking with so much force they hit the wall on the other side of the room.

There is no timing of when your waters will break, it can happen before or during labour, or even as you’re pushing (like me!).

But then again, your waters may not even break or you might have them broken by your midwife.

Related: 18 of the Best Online Childbirth Classes Compared

What should I do when my waters break?

Following your health care providers, advice should always be your first instinct.

The answer to this question has changed so much over the years but the safest option is to follow the advice you’ve been given.

Don’t just think that because you’ve watched all of these TV shows with labour in them that you’re the new professional.

Real like is completely different from what you see on TV, please remember that.

If you’re having regular contractions before 37 weeks then it may be a sign of premature labour.

Signs of premature labour

Your entire abdomen will be hard to touch and you’ll feel your uterus tightening, along with pressure in your abdomen, pressure in your pelvis, cramping and dull backache.

If these signs are accompanied by diarrhoea, a gush of watery discharge or vaginal bleeding, contact your doctor or midwife immediately.

The risk factors of preterm labour are –

-Smoking or using drugs
-High levels of stress.
-Certain infections
-Multiple pregnancies (twins)
-History of preterm birth
-Not getting proper prenatal care
-Being under – or overweight before pregnancy

You will need to provide information to your doctor so pay attention to the frequency and duration of your contractions, as well as any secondary symptoms.

If you or your doctor are worried about preterm, there are certain drugs and treatments that can be used to help delay the labour.

Stages of contractions during labour

If you rest or drink water and you’re in active labour, the symptoms will not subside as they would with Braxton Hicks contractions.

They’re dilating the cervix so will become closer together, stronger and longer.

Related: Losing your mucus plug? Is Labor Imminent?

Early labor

In early labour, the contractions and tightening you’ll feel will last anywhere between 30-90 seconds.

They are somewhat mild compared to active labour.

They will present themselves at regular intervals of times and are organised.

When you’ve come closer to the end of your early labour, they will be close to five minutes apart but may start out quite spaced out.

You may notice your bloody show during this stage, also known as your mucous plug. This happens when your cervix begins to open.

You may have a huge gush or small trickle of fluid from your vagina which may be your waters (remember, your waters may not break!).

Active labour and transition

These contractions are more intense than the ones you experienced in early labour.

Your cervix will open from 4 – 10 centimetres just before you push your baby out into the world.

They start are your back, and make their way around to your abdomen and torso. During this, your legs may also ache and cramp.

Contractions in active labour will last between 45-60 seconds and will have a 3-5-minute rest in between.

During transition, your cervix will dilate from 7-10 centimetres, and they last between 60-90 seconds. You will only have 30 seconds – 2-minute rests in between. As your body prepares to push, these contractions may overlap.

How to feel comfortable during contractions

Active labour and transition stage is when your contractions will be at their most intense. You can deal with the pain by doing a number of things, with or without drugs included.

Pain management methods without drugs:

-Hypnosis
-Meditating
-Walking around or changing positions
-Hopping into a shower or bathtub
-Listening to music
-Distracting your mind with games or counting
-Using counter pressure or massages
-Engaging in gentle yoga

Related: How to heal quickly postpartum. Using a Padsicle

Pain intervention methods:


Anaesthetics
Analgesics

Demerol is an analgesic which can help dull the pain but also keeping some feeling and muscle movement intact.

Epidurals completely block the pain and work as an anaesthetic. You will not be able to feel anything or have any muscle movement.

These drugs do come with their own risks and side effects though but are very effective. Before you go into labour, you need to familiarise yourself with the pain management you could be offered.

If you write up a birth plan with your choices down on paper then your midwife will know exactly what to give you at the best time.

I didn’t have a birth plan in place or really knew about the pain management, so when I was in labour and couldn’t deal with the pain, I ended up being given pethidine, something that didn’t suit me at all.

This was in addition to the Entonox I was already sucking on as if my life depended on it. Be prepared! It will all run much smoother and you’ll be at ease.

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