Are these real contractions?

Are these real contractions?
How do you tell the difference between real contractions and Braxton Hicks contractions?

Contractions generally signal that you’re in labour and will soon deliver your baby. However, you may also experience Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labour pains. Here’s how to tell the difference between real and false contractions.

Real contractions

  • Women usually feel real contractions in the upper abdomen, lower abdomen, and lower back.
Our downloadable guide will help you calculate the duration and frequency of your contractions.
  • They are accompanied by pain and the feeling of a hardening of the uterus.
  • They last at least 30 seconds.
  • Their frequency is regular.
  • As labour progresses, they get stronger, longer, and closer together.
  • The intensity of the contractions may decrease when you’re moving or in an upright position.
  • They are accompanied by a thinning and opening of the cervix.
The frequency of a contraction is calculated from the start of one contraction to the start of the next contraction. For example, if the first contraction starts at 10:00 a.m. and the next contraction starts at 10:10 a.m., the contraction frequency is 10 minutes.
The duration of a contraction is calculated from the start of the contraction to the end of the contraction. For example, if a contraction starts at 10:00 a.m. and ends 30 seconds later, its duration is 30 seconds. The duration of a contraction is usually calculated in seconds. They can last about 30 seconds at the start of labour, and then gradually extend to 90 seconds.
Your health care professional may also refer to the interval between contractions. An interval is calculated from the end of one contraction to the start of the next one. For example, if one contraction ends at 10:01 a.m. and the next one begins at 10:10 a.m., the interval between contractions is 9 minutes.

Braxton Hicks contractions

  • They are also known as false labour pains.
  • They can occur throughout your pregnancy, but are most common in the third trimester. Some pregnant women experience them during the last three months of their pregnancy. Others only experience them in the last month or as they near childbirth.
  • They often manifest as the feeling of a tightening in the abdomen caused by a tightening and loosening of the uterus. They can be uncomfortable without being painful. Many women compare them to premenstrual pain or describe them as cramps.
  • They are irregular in intensity, frequency, and duration.
  • It often helps to lie down and rest on your left side, or to take a hot shower or bath.

Unlike real contractions:

  • Braxton Hicks contractions don’t get progressively stronger.
  • False labour pains don’t get closer together.
  • There is no change in the cervix.

When should you go to your birth location?

Before 37 weeks of pregnancy

Contractions that occur before 37 weeks of pregnancy may be a sign of premature labour. You should go to the hospital in the following cases:

  • Your contractions are regular and return every 10 minutes or less.
  • Your contractions are accompanied by watery discharge or vaginal bleeding or lower back pain, along with decreased baby movement.
  • You feel cramps in your lower abdomen or pressure in your pelvis or vagina.

After 37 weeks of pregnancy

You should go to your birth location in the following cases:

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  • Your water suddenly breaks or it trickles continuously.
  • You experience vaginal bleeding.
  • Your contractions are regular (30 seconds or longer, every five minutes) and have been painful for at least one hour. You may want to leave a little earlier if the hospital is more than 30 minutes from your home, if you’re pregnant with your second child, or if you’ve had a fast labour previously.
  • You’re uncomfortable or very anxious during labour. However, after a medical assessment, you may be sent home if labour hasn’t progressed enough.

Other signs may mean that you’re in labour. For more information, read our fact sheet on the signs of labour.

If you’re not sure what to do, call your hospital’s birthing unit.

Things to keep in mind

  • Real contractions come at regular intervals and intensify as labour progresses.
  • False contractions are irregular and fade with rest.
  • If in doubt, call your hospital’s birthing unit.
  • Be especially vigilant if you’re not at full term and are experiencing contractions.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Dr. Chantal Ouellet, physician, and Roxanne Piché, nursing adviser, Maternal Fetal Medicine Clinic, CHU Sainte-Justine
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: November 2019



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