Your Pregnancy

How to Survive Prodromal Labor (And How To Tell If You’re Experiencing It)

Otherwise known as "false labor", and it's no fun at all.
Rachel Hiser

Every woman’s story of pregnancy and delivery is different. Some have fairly uneventful pregnancies while others are hit with every discomfort in the book. Some women have quick deliveries while others can be counted in days.

Some women can barely tell they’re in labor, and some women experience what’s known as prodromal labor.

You can read every pregnancy book and blog out there to prepare yourself, but there is an air of mystery around the due date and beginning of labor, especially for first-time moms.

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How will I know I’m going into labor? Will my water break? How accurate is my due date?

At the first twinge of belly discomfort, you’re running to the car with your hospital bag, only to arrive and then be sent home.

Surprise! You’re in prodromal labor.

What is prodromal labor?

Sometimes called false labor, latent labor, and pre-labor, prodromal labor is the beginning of contractions, but it does not dilate your cervix.

The contractions are real, but they start and stop, never increasing in frequency or intensity. It can start up to a week or even month before you’re due.

While prodromal labor is real contractions, it’s not real labor. You’ll probably feel the contractions at the same time every day, but there’s no need to run to the hospital.

Most mothers who have experienced prodromal labor would probably say that calling it false labor is misleading. It feels like true labor in that the pain and contractions are real. The only catch is that it starts and stops abruptly rather than producing full dilation or birth.

Not fun.

Prodromal labor is known for starting and stopping at around the same time every day. Even for veteran moms, the nature of these contractions can be very confusing, frustrating, and exhausting.

It’s important to remember that experiencing prodromal labor doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong and it doesn’t cause any harm to your baby.

Symptoms of Prodromal Labor

Like mentioned before, prodromal labor is like labor practice so it can get tricky knowing what’s real and what’s not.

It’s not uncommon for expecting moms to be turned away from the hospital for not being in true labor when they’ve experienced prodromal labor.

Here is a list of symptoms to help you define what’s true and what’s prodromal.

  • It usually starts and stops at the same time each day – Unfortunately, prodromal labor likes to visit during the night. This isn’t always the case, though. It is common for contractions to form a pattern from day to day, which can lead to intense exhaustion. Being so exhausted from “practicing” labor can make discerning real labor that much more difficult.
  • Its intensity will be steady as it won’t progress like traditional labor – Prodromal labor contractions may feel like the type you experience early in real labor when you’re still under 6 cm. dilated. These contractions are most definitely uncomfortable and even painful, but don’t typically occur any less than 5 minutes apart. One important factor to consider when figuring out what’s what is that prodromal labor doesn’t progress.
  • You won’t dilate (or at least not quickly) – Prodromal labor doesn’t motivate a normal dilation like traditional labor does. Dilating to 2 or 3 cm. is very common, but rarely do expecting mothers progress past this point until baby’s true arrival finally comes.
  • You may have vaginal discharge – Contractions might help loosen mucus plug, but you typically won’t experience bloody show with prodromal labor. According to WhatToExpect, the bloody show is vaginal discharge that is pinkish or brownish in color. Once this occurs, you’ll delivery within a few days. With prodromal labor, vaginal discharge is only slightly tinged or not at all.
  • It can last days, weeks, or even up to a month or more – Usually beginning within the last month of pregnancy, prodromal labor can stick around for a hot minute. Take comfort in knowing that this too shall pass.

How can I tell the difference from real labor?

Many women take trips to the hospital only to arrive and be turned away because they’re not in real labor.

To hopefully avoid such a trip, learn to recognize the differences between real and prodromal labor.

Real Labor

  • Contractions will grow stronger and lengthen in duration.
  • You’ll feel pain in your back, abdomen, and maybe legs.
  • Nothing you do slows or eases the contractions.

Prodromal Labor

  • Walking and/or drinking water helps slow down or even stop the contractions
  • Contractions are regular but don’t increase in speed or duration beyond five minutes apart.
  • Pain located in the lower abdomen.

Even experienced moms can have a hard time telling the difference between prodromal and real labor.

It’s usually better to be safe than sorry, so if you can’t tell the difference you should probably head to the hospital. If it is prodromal labor, your doctor can talk to you about what to expect and when you should come back.

How does it differ from Braxton Hicks?

Some people have been misled to believe that prodromal labor is the same as having Braxton Hicks contractions. There is a clear difference between the two, though.

Most women will experience Braxton Hicks during their pregnancy. While they can be uncomfortable, they are not true labor.

A simple way to think of Braxton Hicks versus prodromal labor is this – Braxton Hicks contractions are like “practice contractions” while prodromal labor is like “practice labor” (we’ll talk about why this is a plus later on).

Braxton Hicks contractions are the tightening of your uterus and abdominal wall (some women compare them to menstrual cramps). They can come and go and don’t increase in intensity.

Many times changing positions will resolve any discomfort you might feel. The same can’t be said of prodromal labor.

Most women don’t even feel them. Women who experience them say it’s more of a tightening and discomforting feeling rather than pain.

Prodromal labor follows a regular pattern and the intensity varies. Because they are real contractions, they can be quite painful!

Braxton Hicks contractions can start in the second trimester while prodromal labor only starts at the end of your pregnancy.

Read our guide to Braxton Hicks.

What causes prodromal labor?

There is some debate within the medical world on what causes prodromal labor. Like many phenomenons surrounding pregnancy, this one widely remains a mystery.

Thankfully recognizing it’s symptoms have been pegged down to a common few. While each pregnancy is different, here are a few common speculations on its cause.

  • Anxiety – The guilty culprit to many of life’s physical and emotional hardships, anxiety might be influential in the onset of prodromal labor. A hard day at work or even performing a little too much physical activity could start it up.
  • Physical Abnormalities – Some women with an uneven pelvis or uterine abnormalities are more prone to experience prodromal labor. Having a physical factor doesn’t guarantee this experience, but it does make you more susceptible.
  • Previous Pregnancies – Your uterus changes with each pregnancy. Specifically, it becomes more relaxed. This might be a significant indicator of whether a woman is more apt to experience prodromal labor or not. Some even believe that three is the magic number and that after three pregnancies is when prodromal labor likes to kick in.
  • Baby’s Positioning – When baby is in a breech position, the medical community believes that prodromal labor is more common. It could very well be the body attempting to position the baby correctly for labor.

Some women just draw the short straw. But perhaps, it’s just your body’s way of saying “Hey! Get ready, labor’s almost here! And I need to practice.”

How can you deal with it?

Firstly, be kind to yourself, mama.

There is no shame in contacting your midwife, doula, or doctor if you aren’t sure what’s happening with your body. This is your life and your baby’s life, so make the call if you feel like it.

As this post has outlined, prodromal labor is a trickster of sorts. It likes to not follow the rules we’ve laid out for pregnancy. This in itself can make it very frustrating to experience.

In fact, some women even start to think they’re going crazy from all the false alarms. A respected holistic blogger and mother of six shares her experience with prodromal labor on her site, WellnessMama. It’s important to lean on other mothers who have experienced it before simply because of the self-doubt that tends to arise.

While it can be scary or unnerving, prodromal labor is considered normal. It can be tough to work through, but ultimately you’re getting ready to meet your baby!

Here are some tips on surviving prodromal labor:

  • Remember that there’s nothing wrong with you. This is a normal occurrence! Don’t add worrying to your already full plate. Reach out to other women who’ve had this experience and do some research so you can feel better prepared.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking water can ease the pain. You also need to keep up your energy because exhaustion can hit you quickly, and you’ll need your strength for when real labor arrives.
  • Take naps and get as much sleep as you can. Again with the exhaustion. Getting enough sleep while pregnant is hard enough, throw in prodromal contractions and what’s a girl to do!? However, sleep is important for your mental and physical health, so nap when you can.
  • Try light exercises and stretching. This can also help ease the pain and help your baby get in a better position for birth. It might also speed up the arrival of real labor.
  • Use the relaxation and breathing techniques from your birthing class. You might as well get some practice in. If your prodromal labor lasts a long time, it will be essential that you learn to cope with it. By testing out relaxations methods now, you can see what works for you.
  • Ask for help from family and friends. There’s no shame in asking for help. You’re having contractions! You can’t be expected to stay on top of housework, yard work, regular work, and possibly other children. Reach out to friends and family.

Remember that you are nearing the end of your pregnancy marathon. You are probably tired, uncomfortable, and more than ready to hold your baby. So, dealing with prodromal labor is only going to exacerbate any negative emotions you’re already feeling. Rely on your moral support to help you through.

Although it doesn’t seem fair to have to “practice” labor for an extended time, it may be a blessing in disguise. Practice like a champ, mama!

Now is the time to really hone in on your laboring techniques and perfect the strategies you’ve planned to use during labor and delivery. When real labor does arrive, you’ll be anything but unprepared.

The end is near.

Going through prodromal labor is a tough experience. Make sure you have the support you need. And if you have any questions or feel that your pain is something abnormal, contact your doctor immediately.

If you experience prodromal labor, just remember it’s a sign your baby is on its way! Your body is just preparing you for that moment you meet your child. Some women who experience prodromal labor also experience shortened real labor. There’s a little silver lining!

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