The first few contractions can mean excitement and adrenaline are flowing while getting ready for a baby to be born. The baby is coming! Friends and family may be called. Boss may get notice not to expect you because...hold on... here comes another one...
But then that next part doesn't come.
The part where you go to the hospital and the nurses say, "Yes! You are in active labor, let's get you admitted!" They may send you home. Twice. They may tell you to rest, and relax. They may tell you this isn't the hard part yet.
What is going on?!
Welcome to the world of contractions. It may not be THE strongest muscle in the female body, but there is some evidence to show the uterus presents a strong case (other top contenders are said to be the tongue -which is actually 8 muscles, the eye muscles, the heart muscle, and jaw muscles.)
Even if it isn't the strongest, the uterus is a muscle and muscles are designed to contract. When a woman is feeling her abdomen tighten in a way she has never experienced before, understanding what is expected and normal may require some patience.
The first stage of labor can be described simply as a series of contractions that get longer, stronger, and closer together.
When contractions do not become longer, stronger, or closer together, they are not "labor contractions." They may be called Braxton Hicks contractions, or if closer to your delivery date - pre-labor, prodromal labor, or false labor.
What comes to be the distinguishing difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and pre-labor, (sometimes called prodromal labor) is that Braxton Hicks contractions typically don't cause noticeable change to a woman's cervix.
Braxton HicksSome descriptions of Braxton Hicks:
It is suggested that if Braxton Hicks contractions are being felt, a woman should ease up on activity, or change positions, and drink fluid (as she may be dehydrated). Use the restroom. Take a warm bath. Relax. After some time, Braxton Hicks contractions will usually stop.
Some believe that Braxton Hicks contractions are how your uterus prepares for labor, and the muscle is "getting ready" so to speak. I have seen it been described as "bicep curls for your uterus."
Irritating? Sure. Harmful on their own? No.
Pre-Labor, Or Prodromal LaborSome descriptions of pre-labor or prodromal labor:
A care provider may tell a client that she has no change in effacement or dilation (thickness or opening). A care provider can be asked about how soft the cervix is and its position, as those are important parts of progress as well. Or as one nurse I've worked with says, "You get credit for those contractions!"
So Is It Real, Or Not Real?Regardless of how it is classified, women should be believed when they say they are in pain. Braxton Hicks and prodromal labor both have the possibility of being strong or cause pain. A concern may be how long they last, but that varies widely from person to person - just as birth itself varies widely.
If a person believes it is Braxton Hicks:
If a person has been experiencing contractions for long periods of time but is then told she is not in active labor, it may discourage her and cause fear about what "real labor" will be like. There is no way to predict what a woman's active labor pattern will take, so remaining positive and encouraging is important.
If a woman is experiencing prodromal labor, she can do all the things mentioned above for Braxton Hicks PLUS:
Massage, music, eating and drinking regularly, and rest when possible (between contractions) can help prepare a woman for the time when her body begins to have contractions that are creating measurable change on her cervix.
If prodromal labor lasts to a point where a women does not feel she could sustain the intensity, time, and effort active labor may take, she may consider talking to her care provider about therapeutic rest as an option.
Having a team in place that is equipped to meet a laboring woman right where she is can help keep a woman encouraged, relaxed, and help renew her energy when necessary.
Remember, you get credit for these contractions!
Authored by Ariel Swift
Ariel Swift (she/her) does most of the writing around this blog, but we love having guest writers and visits!