False Labor Pain and Signs It's Not Quite Time

Prodromal labor contractions, also know as false labor, often leave pregnant women confused and antsy. Here's what you need to know about the pesky cramps, and how long you should expect them to last.

Pregnant Woman Holding Belly
Photo: COLLATERAL/Shutterstock

It's the end of your pregnancy. You're big, you're tired, and you're beyond ready to meet the tiny person who has been making their home in your body for the better part of a year. With every twinge in your belly or ache in your back, you're wondering, "Is that a contraction?" Unfortunately, many people will have quite a few labor "scares" before the active stage actually begins.

Prodromal labor, sometimes called false labor, is a common occurrence for women in the last few weeks of pregnancy. Here's the lowdown on what it is, why it happens, and how long prodromal labor lasts.

What is False Labor?

Prodromal labor has a lot of names: pre-labor, false labor, latent labor. It's basically “when you have contractions, at term, not resulting in a delivery,” says Colleen Wittenberg, M.D., an Ob-Gyn with Kaiser Permanente in Riverside, CA.

You may have heard of women heading to the hospital, breathing through strong contractions the whole way there, just to be told in triage that what they're feeling isn't "real" labor and that they should go home and wait. Frustrating, right? This kind of labor can present in different ways for different people, so it's often hard to pin down.

RELATED: Labor Pain Explained: Stages, Symptoms and Pain Relief

False Labor Signs

Kristi Angevine, M.D., an Ob-Gyn in Chattanooga, Tenn., explains that prodromal labor usually presents as "contractions that range from mild to strong and may be regular or irregular in their frequency and duration."

These contractions might come and go, but they're usually less than every 5 minutes and do not become more frequent. There can be pelvic/back pressure, abdominal tightening, vaginal discharge, and scant spotting, but no heavy bleeding. The main thing about false labor to remember is that it consists of contractions that are not progressing into more active labor or dilating your cervix.

RELATED: The Different Types of Contractions and What They Mean

How Long False Labor Lasts

There’s no direct cause of prodromal labor; often it can result from a long day, stress, or lots of physical activity, but most often it's just your body getting ready to go into labor for real.

Kaylah Rondon, M.D., a physician at Atlantic Medical Group’s Women’s Health in Westfield, NJ, says prodromal labor can can last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks before actual labor kicks in. Some birth professionals think that extended prodromal labor is related to the baby's position in the uterus, but there's no consensus for that being a factor.

If you experience prodromal labor, don't get discouraged: it's normal—and if you're worried, speak to your Ob-Gyn. While it may not mean that you're going to meet your baby in the next few hours (or even days) experiencing prodromal labor does mean that your body is getting ready for real labor, prepping for the process that's going to bring your baby to you. That's ultimately a good thing.

Updated by Carrie Murphy
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