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Contractions Can Show Us the Amazing Ways Our Bodies Prepare for Birth

Our bodies are capable of amazing things.

During pregnancy, in just the first ten weeks, our uterus makes space for a cluster of cells to grow into a tiny human the size of a Golden Snitch. To support baby’s growth and development, our body will make an entirely new organ, the placenta. But the amazing ways our bodies prepare for birth and baby don’t stop there.

In the last weeks, days or even hours, of pregnancy, the body prepares in a whole new way. The cervix begins to move forward, soften (ripen), and thin (efface). It may even begin to open (dilate). The tiny human that has now surpassed the size of a Cabbage Patch Doll will begin to descend (this is what they refer to as station) and rotate. These progressions into labor—the cervix getting ready and baby moving into position—are encouraged by another wonder of the female body: the uterine muscle and its helpful, practice contractions.

Prior to the birth day, some of us may begin to feel practice contractions or what are commonly referred to as Braxton Hicks.

We usually think of Braxton Hicks as pointless false labor, but that’s not entirely accurate. These practice contractions actually serve the important purpose of toning the uterine muscles in preparation for birth. They tend to be irregular in duration and intensity, occur infrequently, are unpredictable and non-rhythmic, and are more uncomfortable than painful.

Most pregnant people start to feel them beginning in the second or third trimester.  It’s also possible to go an entire pregnancy without feeling a single Braxton Hicks prior to the start of labor. There are many variations of normal. However, even if you don’t feel them, that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. In fact, not only do these practice contractions take place in all pregnancies, but it is believed they actually start as early as 6 weeks gestation.

Learning what our body’s labor language can look like

To see what these contractions might look like in real time we can use an automated contraction tracker, like Bloomlife, or time these sporadic contractions ourselves using our own contraction timer. During a Bloomlife session we might see contractions show up looking something like this:

contractions bloomlife tracker

We can see here that like practice contractions they are irregular in duration and frequency (time between).

Here is another example:

Even though there are a few contractions in a row, they are still irregular in duration—ranging from 45 seconds to 2 minutes. They are also irregular in their frequency—ranging from 1 minute apart to over 12 minutes apart.

What if, when using Bloomlife, we see lots of contractions, but we aren’t feeling them?

First, don’t worry! It’s unlikely that you missed the start of your labor or that Bloomlife is inaccurately picking up contractions. More likely, Bloomlife is actually picking up and displaying all that uterine muscle practice—exercise that takes place throughout pregnancy before the contractions reach an attention grabbing intensity.

Think of this the low level practice like breast milk production: we don’t know that it’s already well underway early in pregnancy, but it is. From about 16-22 weeks on our body has that magic, nutrient dense liquid gold called colostrum. You may notice some slight, occasional leakage but most women do not even realize this amazing transformation is underway.

Practice contractions are the same. Even though we don’t feel or see everything happening under the surface, the body is hard at work, invisibly preparing for birth and the arrival of baby.

How do we know when it’s more than practice?

In general, when things shift, we will begin to see distinct changes in our contraction patterns. These changes will help us know when contractions become true labor contractions.

Other signs our practice contractions may have graduated include:

  • Contractions are becoming closer together
  • They are painful
  • They don’t stop or differ with rest or change in activity level
  • They have increased in strength

Instinct and communication

With these in mind, we should listen to what our instincts tell us and also feel comfortable enough to check in and talk openly with our care team. Take heart, these two—instinct and communication— are equally important. It’s true, the vast majority of birthing people just know when labor has truly started. Our Midwife, Obstetrician, and/or Doula can be a great resource when it comes to deciphering practice contractions, but they are an untapped resource if we don’t ask questions and have discussions.

We are all learning what our body’s labor language actually looks like.

Listening to our instincts is a vital part of our childbirth experience, and it is something we will undoubtedly use going forward throughout our parenting journey. While our medical provider is the expert on managing pregnancy, we are the experts on our pregnancy, and this makes our instincts and what they tell us invaluable. If something just doesn’t feel normal or we can’t shake the thought of it, that’s reason enough to check in with our OB triage line at our place of birth or with our physician/midwife.

Truly, our bodies are magic! Pregnancy and birth is a fascinating glimpse into the amazing.

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braxton hicks contractions

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Amber Navarro

About Amber

Amber Navarro is a birth doula and certified lactation educator & counselor. She graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a degree in Psychology. She currently lives in Orange County, Ca with her husband and three boys where she's found a home within the birth community. Her work as a doula allows her to utilize her passion for pregnancy, birth, babywearing, and breastfeeding to support new parents.

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