What Is Prodromal Labor?

It can be hard to distinguish between prodromal labor and real labor contractions. Here are some tips for coping with prodromal labor and knowing when it's time to head to the hospital.

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Prodromal labor is also called "false labor" or "pre-labor" because while it can feel like labor is starting, the contractions you feel don't actually result in any of the changes to your cervix that characterize true labor.

Near the end of pregnancy, some people—especially first-timers—might experience what is called prodromal labor. You might think you're going into labor and head into the hospital, only to be sent back home when you find out it's not "real" labor just yet. Prodromal labor can be an incredibly frustrating experience, but if you encounter it, here's what you should know.

What Is Prodromal Labor?

Prodromal labor is essentially pre-labor, explains G. Thomas Ruiz, M.D., an OB-GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. It is the uterine activity that falls somewhere between Braxton Hicks contractions and active labor.

Some experts believe it happens when babies move into the ideal birthing position. Your risk of might also increase if you have uterine or pelvic abnormalities, anxiety or stress, have had three or more pregnancies in the past, or have a history of prodromal labor.

During prodromal labor, the uterus contracts—sometimes in a pattern for several hours—but the contractions don't actually cause any changes in the cervix. To be considered labor, the cervix must actually change by thinning out (effacing) or opening (dilating). In true labor, contractions will cause these cervical changes.

Dr. Ruiz explains that prodromal labor is still sometimes called "false labor" among many pregnant people. But these days, we know now that prodromal labor isn't necessarily "false labor." Instead, it's more like a warm-up to the main attraction.

What Causes Prodromal Labor?

The first thing to know is that if you are experiencing prodromal labor, it is not because of anything you did (or didn't) do, and your baby is not in distress. Researchers aren't exactly sure what causes prodromal labor or why it happens, but they do think it has something to do with the body preparing for labor, similar to Braxton Hicks. There are several factors that can increase the likelihood of prodromal labor:

  • Irregular pelvis or uterine anomalies where the pelvis or the uterus developed differently than what is considered typical
  • Stress and anxiety, such as worry about pregnancy and labor
  • Having three or more pregnancies, which can influence uterine changes over time
  • The baby moving into the birthing position, especially if breech, can trigger prodromal labor

What Does Prodromal Labor Feel Like?

Prodromal labor pain can feel similar to active labor pain, which means you might feel mild, moderate, or even intense pain. To determine whether you are in labor, a health care provider may examine your cervix to check for dilation since prodromal labor does not cause the cervix to dilate.

Signs of prodromal labor can include:

  • Tightening, tingling, or intense pain in the front of the abdomen.
  • Cramping or contractions that do not grow more intense or frequent over time.
  • Contractions that last for 60 seconds at a time.
  • Contractions are roughly five minutes apart but do not grow closer together.

Some people who have prodromal labor symptoms mistake them for Braxton Hicks contractions. Here's how to tell the difference.

Prodromal Labor vs. Braxton Hicks Contractions
  Prodromal Labor Braxton Hicks Contractions 
How painful are contractions? Contractions are consistent and uncomfortable; they usually have more of a pattern and can last several hours. These are "practice" contractions and are usually pain-free to mildly uncomfortable.
How long does a contraction last? Usually, around 60 seconds Unpredictable and irregular
How far apart are contractions? Usually around 5 to 10 minutes apart, but never grow closer together like in active labor Irregular, never grow closer together like active labor
When do contractions start? Typically in the third trimester, close to labor when the baby is moving into position As early as the second trimester
Can you make the contraction stop? Not typically Yes. Walking, movement, and changing positions can halt a Braxton Hicks contraction.

When Does Prodromal Labor Happen?

Prodromal labor usually happens when someone is at least 37 weeks pregnant, and it tends to be completely random. You might experience prodromal labor with one pregnancy and not the next. It tends to kick in after a long day, such as when you have been very active or on your feet a lot.

Dr. Ruiz notes that the majority of pregnant people will not experience prodromal labor. It is, however, more likely to happen in first-time pregnancies because the uterus has not gone through labor yet. While the timeline is different for everyone, the average length of prodromal labor is about 24 to 72 hours.

Prodromal Labor vs. Active Labor

According to Dr. Ruiz, the main indicator that you are experiencing prodromal labor and not active labor is that prodromal labor is not as intense or painful as real, active labor. Additionally, real labor contractions tend to become closer together, stronger, and longer as they progress. Prodromal contractions, on the other hand, pretty much stay the same, even if they happen over a long period of time.

The following are three other ways to tell that you might actually be experiencing active labor.

You're having other labor symptoms

If it's real labor, your body might be giving you clues in other ways. For example, if your water is leaking or you're having a bloody show, it's probably the real deal.

Drinking water doesn't affect your symptoms

Dr. Ruiz explains that if your contractions are actually prodromal labor, guzzling a lot of water or taking a warm shower may stop them completely. That's because water can relax smooth muscles in the body, such as—you guessed it—the muscles of the uterus. If your contractions are the real deal, however, no amount of water or bathing is going to stop them.

Your contractions are 5 to 10 minutes apart

Dr. Ruiz advises anyone pregnant with their first baby to wait to go to the hospital until they experience a pattern of contractions that are painful enough to take your breath away, last 45 to 60 seconds, and occur every five minutes for two hours. "You're looking for a very regular pattern of painful contractions. You should really feel uncomfortable," he explains.

How To Speed Up Prodromal Labor

Anxious to progress prodromal labor and turn it into actual labor? Unfortunately, there's not much you can do. Try moving positions to decrease prodromal labor pain, relaxing with a warm bath, staying hydrated, and eating nutritious foods. Light exercise, such as a walk, might also encourage your baby to move into the proper birthing position. Also keep in mind that there are some benefits of prodromal labor—namely, all of that "pre-work" could make actual labor easier.

Prodromal labor doesn't cause active labor, so there is no real way to put a timeline on when true labor will start if you're experiencing prodromal labor symptoms. The relationship between prodromal labor and active labor is simply that one comes before the other, but not all pregnant people will experience prodromal labor.

Prodromal labor can be a frustrating experience, but if you do encounter it, just keep in mind that it's a natural process your body is going through to get ready for the main event.

Your body is doing what it needs to do to prepare, and just like with parenthood, we all do things a little differently, even when it comes to labor and contractions. Trust your body, and when in doubt, call your prenatal health care provider or head to the hospital to get checked if you think you might be in labor.

Key Takeaways

Prodromal labor, sometimes referred to as "pre-labor" or "false labor," is a common occurrence toward the end of pregnancy. It can be confused for early labor or Braxton Hicks contractions, however, but there are ways you and a health care provider can tell the difference. Always check with a health care provider if you have questions or concerns.

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