Picture it: after a long, sweaty day running errands, you're looking forward to some well-earned snooze in your snug bed.
This happens a few more times and you lie down to breathe through the pains until stronger contractions build. After all, this is what your midwife said early labour might be like! You drift off to sleep breathing in and out and the next thing you know... it's morning.
Wait. WHAT?! *record scratch*
Although some of us feel these irregular pains, or Braxton Hicks contractions, from the second trimester onwards, many others don't notice them at all. In general, Braxton Hicks are more intense and frequent the closer you are to term, as more oxytocin receptors are laid down in the uterine muscle in preparation for the big day. More receptors = a stronger response to the release of that fickle hormone.
As you finish reconfiguring into a supportive structure the 27 pillows required for any decent sleep this late in your pregnancy, you feel a tightening in your abdomen. Your tummy lifts and hardens into a firm ball and then softens again a minute or so later. It's uncomfortable, but not unbearable, like someone wrapping an elastic around your midsection and squeezing tight.
Not what you were expecting, right? Your uterus, like any other muscle in your body, can get cranky and tired with overuse and will complain more loudly if you've been particularly active or are a bit dehydrated. Unfortunately, the pains tend to be worse at night, just when you're trying to sleep.
So when do the annoying so-called "practice contractions" give way to the real deal? The kind of contractions that thin, shorten and open your cervix?
Labour contractions generally start at the fundus, or top of the uterus (that spot right below your sternum that makes a perfect shelf for your lunch) and move downward until you feel pressure in the pelvis.
The pain then recedes in the opposite direction, ending at the fundus. Over time, these get longer, stronger and closer together. You will almost certainly see bloody "show" or spotting as the cervix melts away.
If you're a visual learner like me, however, none of this will make sense until you see it happen in front of you. The video below, from childbirth educator Liz Chalmers, made the rounds on social media a while back and is still the best I've ever seen at illustrating the differences.
Of course, your individual experience may vary based on your clinical situation, but your midwife will be sure to discuss these points and more with you during your routine antenatal visits.
As always, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask - that's what we're here for!