Is it True or False Labor? How to Tell.

That first contraction a mama feels is so exhilarating (and also a little nerve-wracking, if I’m honest). I still remember the first time I felt a Braxton Hicks contraction. It was such a strange sensation - an uncontrollable tightening of my uterus and a slight pressure downward. I was about 34 weeks pregnant with my first and was unsure - uhhh is this the real deal? If so, it’s way too soon! Luckily it was good ‘ol Braxton Hicks visiting my doorstep and not the real deal. But I remember wondering...what DOES the real deal feel like? Read on if you’re curious about the answer.

FALSE LABOR (& Braxton Hicks Contractions)

First off, Braxton Hicks contractions & false labor are the same thing. I like to call them “practice contractions” because that’s kind of what they are. They are known to tone the uterus, and while they don’t actively lead to cervical dilation, it is thought that they soften the cervix.

Braxton Hicks are thought to actually begin as early as six weeks gestation, but most mamas won’t notice them until their second or third trimester. Most women say they feel like mild menstrual cramps and/or a tightening of the uterus in specific locations (usually around the front & top).

The main thing to note is that they do not increase in frequency, duration or pain level. In other words, they eventually stop and aren’t too terribly painful. I say this, but for many first time mamas, they are actually painful. But what you’ll realize is that in comparison to true labor contractions, they aren’t painful. Also important to note is that many mamas report Braxton Hicks to increase at night. This can lead to an excited & sleepless night...only to realize that labor is not actually starting!

The best way to determine if they’re the real deal or not (especially if you’re farther along and labor can begin at any moment) is to conduct a test.

  1. Drink a glass of water. Dehydration can cause an increase in contractions.

  2. Lie down. Movement can increase contractions.

  3. Take a bath or shower. Warm water can relax your body and often will cause your contractions to decrease.

  4. If all else fails, go to sleep. If you wake up and they are gone, then you know it wasn’t the real deal!


True labor always follows these specific rules:

  • Increase in frequency - no matter what you do (lie down, take a bath, sleep, drink water), your contractions continue & get closer together.

  • Increase in duration - the contractions themselves last longer. Usually active labor is considered to be contractions that last about 60 seconds.

  • Increase in pain level - real contractions are more painful. In my experience, real contractions wrap around my body & shoot down my legs. Some women say that they feel it more in their back. Other women also describe more downward pressure during the contraction. Regardless, the pain is different and more intense.

Here’s a handy diagram you can use to quickly determine if your contractions are TRUE or FALSE.

Take heart and know that if you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, that means that your body is prepping for labor. Every day you’re one step closer to meeting your baby!