As you progress through the final leg of your pregnancy, your body starts to prepare itself for the forthcoming birth.

From around Week 34, many women (though by no means all) notice that their uterus hardens several times a day. These tightening sensations are called Braxton Hicks contractions, and they can start as early as the second trimester, although it is more common for them to begin during the third. They are named after John Braxton Hicks, the 19th-century British obstetrician who first noticed and described them.

During these contractions, the muscles of the uterus tighten for approximately 30-60 seconds and sometimes for as long as two minutes.

Braxton Hicks are sometimes called 'practice contractions' because they prepare the uterus for labour itself. As the due date comes closer, they can sometimes become uncomfortable and difficult to distinguish from real labour, especially if this is your first baby. However, Braxton Hicks contractions are unlike labour in that they:

  • Are infrequent
  • Are irregular in intensity
  • Are unpredictable
  • Are non-rhythmic
  • Feel uncomfortable rather than painful (although, for some women, Braxton Hicks can feel painful)
  • Do not increase in intensity or frequency
  • Taper off and then disappear altogether.
  • So, if your contractions are easing up in any way, they are most likely Braxton Hicks.Coping with Braxton Hicks contractionsAlthough it cannot be predicted exactly when and how frequently Braxton Hicks contractions occur, there are some known triggers:
  • Increased Activity (yours or the baby's)
  • Someone touching your abdomen
  • A full bladder
  • Sex
  • Dehydration
  • When you are having strong Braxton Hicks contractions, try moving around or changing position and use any breathing techniques you may have learnt in your antenatal classes to help you relax during labour, because being tense always increases pain.If you are at home, you could have a warm bath to ease the discomfort. Drink some water, herbal tea or milk to prevent dehydration. If you are not sure whether you are experiencing Braxton Hicks or the early signs of labour, don't hesitate to contact your midwife or maternity unit, especially if your contractions are accompanied by lower back pain or your pain is severe.The midwives will not mind at all, and will be best placed to advise you. If all is well, it is better to be reassured than to sit at home in a panic.This is an edited extract from One Born Every Minute: Expecting a Baby? by Dr Penelope Law (Quadrille, £25).Text © 2013 Dr Penelope Law