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So you’re minding your own business when without warning your belly hardens up like a slab of concrete. You might even feel a sharp pain. Is labor starting? Is it time to grab your bag and race to the hospital? … Probably not.
Odds are you’ve just experienced a Braxton-Hicks contraction, a “practice” contraction that doesn’t lead to labor (at least, not within the next day or so). Your uterus has actually been contracting all along, but you may not have noticed it. Some experienced moms may notice uterine tightening as early as 14 weeks, and women expecting multiples will also tend to notice them on the sooner side. It’s also totally normal to not notice a tightening sensation until into the end of the 3rd trimester.
Anyway, when you’re in late pregnancy you can tell it’s a Braxton-Hicks and not a here-comes-labor contraction by their pattern. If the contractions come and go and don’t form a pattern for more than an hour they don’t mean business (yet). Braxon-Hicks also will go away if you change positions, drink water or move around. And Braxton-Hicks don’t hurt, more than a little.
Real contractions, those that say your body’s really getting set to deliver, are usually gripping and uncomfortable. They tend to start out mildly, coming and going with about a 10- or 15- minute rest between, with just two or three or six in a row. Then, over the course of hours, labor contractions will get stronger, more intense and more frequent until they are like intense waves on an ocean.
But still, it’s really easy to be fooled, even if you’ve given birth before. “False labor” is a series of contractions that feel exactly like real labor, except they get started and then stop with no dilation (opening of the cervix) happening. Plenty of parents-to-be have raced to the hospital, only to be sent home again after a check and some monitoring. Studies show that between 30 and 40 percent of moms at some point mistake “false” labor for the real thing.
But don’t take chances: if you time your contractions and they’re coming at least every 10-15 minutes apart, last at least 30-60 seconds each and don’t go away if you move around, call your health care provider’s office or cell phone.