From early in a pregnancy, the uterus ‘practises’ contracting in preparation for labour and birth. A mother is usually unaware of these practise contractions until later in the pregnancy, when they can be felt as a hardening of the ‘bump’. Each contraction can last anything from a few seconds to a few minutes before the uterus relaxes and becomes soft again. These practise or ‘Braxton Hicks’ contractions are completely painless (although they can feel pretty uncomfortable!) and follow no regular pattern. Having them does not necessarily mean that your baby is going to be born early. 1
If you experience contractions that feel uncomfortable or painful – often described as like strong ‘period-type’ pains – and they seem to gradually increase in strength and frequency, it would be wise to contact your hospital. You could be going into labour. You may be given drugs via a drip to stop the contractions. You would also need to seek medical advice if you start leaking any fluid or blood from the vagina.
1Henderson and MacDonald 2004:”Mayes’ Midwifery”