Braxton Hicks are sometimes referred to as false labour or practice contractions. They were named after British gynaecologist Dr John Braxton Hicks in 1872 when these contractions were first explained; this type of contraction occurs irregularly within the uterus during pregnancy.
Although these contractions start at around six weeks it is unlikely that you will feel them at this stage. Not every woman notices the Braxton Hicks contractions at all but if you are going to feel them, it is likely you will do so from 20 weeks onwards. Some women do not notice Braxton Hicks contractions until their second pregnancy.
For most women Braxton Hicks contractions remain random, variable and do not cause any discomfort throughout the pregnancy. However these contractions can be difficult to discern from premature labour if they occur towards the latter end of the pregnancy.
A good rule of thumb is if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and you are experiencing four contractions every 60 minutes or so, it is a good idea to contact your midwife. The easiest way to tell the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and labour contractions is that Braxton Hicks contractions do not lengthen and strengthen as do labour contractions.
If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and are experiencing painful and regular contractions then please do contact your midwife or healthcare provider at once, in case you are in premature labour. Indications of early labour include painful abdominal cramping or in excess of four contractions within 60 minutes regardless of severity. Other signs are spotting or bleeding, increase or change in discharge however slight, internal feeling of baby pushing down or dull throbbing pain in the lower spine.
If you are one of those for whom Braxton Hicks contractions cause discomfort and you are within one month of your due date, then when a contraction comes, leave whatever you are doing and start a new activity. For example, if you are sitting try walking, if you are walking try resting, if you are lying down try sitting up. Drink plenty of water as Braxton Hicks contractions can be exacerbated by dehydration. Deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are excellent as ways of coping with discomfort. Another good idea to relieve uncomfortable cramping is to take a warm shower or bath to relax. By this late stage in your pregnancy you will know if they are labour contractions because these will continue regardless of what you are doing.
However if you are more than 37 weeks pregnant and are experiencing a healthy pregnancy you need not call the doctor or midwife until your contractions are a minute in length and arrive five minutes apart, unless of course your healthcare provider has advised you otherwise.
It may be helpful to view Braxton Hicks contractions as a body prep for labour rather than yet another pregnancy-related irritation.