Braxton Hicks contractions, named for the English doctor who first diagnosed them in 1872, actually can start as early as six weeks into your pregnancy. You will not notice the sporadic contractions in your uterus until about mid-pregnancy, if you notice them at all.
Later in your pregnancy, you will probably experience Braxton Hicks contractions more often, though they will still remain relatively infrequent and, usually, painless. During this time you may experience contractions that are difficult to distinguish from preterm labor symptoms. If you are less than 37 weeks into your pregnancy and experience more than four contractions an hour you should immediately contact your doctor.
The contractions will become more intense and frequent, even possibly causing discomfort, as your due date draws to within a week or two. These contractions will actually “ripen” your cervix, softening and thinning the cervical wall. In this stage, sometimes referred to as pre-labor, you may even dilate a little. During this time, Braxton Hicks contractions may become more rhythmic and close together at times, seeming to mimic true labor. These “false labor” contractions don’t have the increasing intensity, length and frequency you will experience with true labor.
If the Braxton Hicks contractions should make you feel uncomfortable and you are within a few weeks of your delivery date, you should try changing your position. Changing your activity, from walking to resting or vice versa, may bring relief (another sign that this is false labor). A warm bath may relax your body and ease the spasms, and relaxation or deep breathing exercises may ease the discomfort. The contractions are sometimes caused by dehydration, so drinking a glass or two of water may help.
Should you experience frequent, painful or rhythmic contractions before you have reached 37 weeks, this is a possible sign of preterm labor, and your physician should be contacted immediately. You should also notify your doctor if you experience menstrual-like cramps, abdominal pain or more than four contractions in and hour; if you notice any bleeding or spotting; if you experience an increase or change in vaginal discharge; if you feel increased pelvic pressure, as if your baby is “pushing down”; or if you are experiencing extreme low back pain.
If any of these happen after the 37 week point, you can wait until the contractions are about 60 seconds each, at five minute intervals, before contacting your doctor or midwife.