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The difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and the latent phase

latent phase or braxton hicks?

Last week was a tough week for all pregnant women. The heatwave made most of the pregnant women I met complain. It's heavy to be pregnant when the thermometer rises to 30 degrees. Many expressed their desire not to be pregnant anymore.

Something that I started thinking about during all these meetings, and which felt like one of the central questions of the week, was: What is the actual difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and the latent phase? How do you know if it's time to give birth or not?

Therefore, I will try to clarify this a bit.

Braxton Hicks Contractions

I usually think that we can travel to the moon, but we don't know what triggers labor. Isn't that strange? The uterus is a smooth muscle, which means we cannot control its function with our will.

Sometimes I get asked if it's possible to train the uterus. The answer is unfortunately probably no, but it seems like the uterus has some form of "memory". It is well known that when a woman gives birth again, it is usually much easier. When labor starts for a woman who has given birth before, the uterus seems to "recognize" it. We still don't know how this works today.

The Doctor behind Braxton Hicks

The name "Braxton Hicks" originated in 1872 when an English doctor named John Braxton Hicks described the contractions that occur before true labor begins, that is, before the latent phase, and which are a way for the uterus to practice.

Imagine thinking, "this must be labor," only to find out that it's not. Pregnant women have Dr. Hicks to thank for his attempt to eliminate this confusion.

But what is the actual difference?

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions can start as early as the second trimester. However, they are most commonly experienced during the third trimester and beyond. When they occur, the muscles of the uterus contract for about 30 to 60 seconds, and sometimes as long as two minutes. Braxton Hicks contractions are also called "practice contractions" because they are a preparation for real labor contractions.

How do Braxton Hicks contractions feel?

Braxton Hicks contractions start as uncomfortable but painless contractions that begin at the top of your uterine muscles and spread downward. They make the abdomen feel hard and sometimes almost oddly distorted (almost pointed). As you approach your due date, they will become more frequent and increasingly intense.

What causes them?

There are several possible causes of these contractions. Some believe they promote blood flow to the placenta. They are not believed to have a role in cervical dilation but may have some impact on its softening.

pregnant woman on the beach
Being active on the beach in the summer heat can give Braxton Hicks

What triggers them?

  • When the mother or the fetus is very active.

  • When someone touches the mother's abdomen.

  • When the mother's bladder is full.

  • After sex.

  • Dehydration.

What can you do to relieve Braxton Hicks contractions?

  • Change position. You can lie down if you have been standing or take a walk if you have been sitting or lying down.

  • Take a warm bath.

  • Since contractions can be caused by dehydration, it is important to drink fluids, especially during summer and heat waves.

latent phase

Latent Phase - the first part of labor

The latent phase is the phase when the body prepares for active labor. During the latent phase, the cervix begins to open. This phase is characterized by dull aches similar to menstrual cramps. Contractions come and go at varying intervals. During the latent phase, the cervix softens.

This phase can last between 8-20 hours.

When you believe you are well into the latent phase, you should call the delivery ward. They can provide you with tips and advice and plan for your arrival.

If the latent phase becomes too prolonged, it is easy to become exhausted and lose a lot of strength. If the phase takes too long, you should seek help to get pain relief and an opportunity to rest so that you have the energy for the rest of labor. Try to eat and drink to get energy for labor.

What happens during the latent phase?

The body prepares for labor. During this phase, the cervix effaces/shortens, becomes soft, and changes direction. While a woman's body is preparing, so is the fetus. The baby's chin bends towards the chest to ensure the smallest possible circumference of the head.

What are the symptoms of the latent phase?

Typically, contractions in the latent phase are irregular, at least initially. There can sometimes be a long pause between them. Contractions during the latent phase often resemble menstrual cramps. The length of the contractions can be extremely short or extremely long. In the beginning, they are not very painful.

As the latent phase progresses, it can be very painful for some women, and it can be particularly demanding because they have pain almost all the time for a very long time. In addition to contractions and labor pains, some women experience back pain. There may also be some bleeding, which is due to blood vessels in the cervix rupturing as the cervix opens.

Relieving pain during the latent phase

There are various ways to relieve pain during this phase. The most important thing is to try to relax. If possible, try to be up and moving during the day, alternating with rest.

To alleviate pain during the latent phase, you can:

  • Take pain-relieving medication such as paracetamol.

  • Apply heat from water or perhaps a hot water bottle, which usually feels good. Do not take a bath if the amniotic fluid has ruptured; showering is allowed.

  • Change position – in the beginning, a change of position may be enough for the pain to subside.

  • Breathing/relaxation techniques and massage.

  • Use a TENS machine (you can often borrow one from the maternity care center or the delivery ward).

To be continued.


Doctor Eva


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