The Facts About True Labor vs. Prodromal Labor (and how to tell the difference!)

The fact is, prodromal labor (aka false labor) can be a little scary if you don’t know what to watch for, and how to tell the difference. You wouldn’t be the first to run screaming into the Labor and Delivery floor crying “He’s coming 30 weeks early!”

Well, OK, maybe the first to say THAT, but you get what I mean.

Regardless, lady, I want to make sure you have all the facts about true labor and false labor so you can navigate the differences and easily recognize what’s harmless and what might be a matter for concern.

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What is prodromal labor (also called false labor)?

Prodromal labor, often referred to as “false labor” is a term we use to describe having symptoms of labor that don’t actually result in labor. Pretty straight forward, huh?

Well, let’s get a little more specific. According to Medicinet.com, false labor is defined as “Intermittent non-productive muscular contractions of the womb (uterus) during pregnancy, most commonly in the last two months before full term.”

The articles goes on to explain that these contractions aren’t what we consider productive because they don’t actually flatten or dilate the cervix, which are the hallmarks of actual labor.

Load off your mind yet? Phew!

Of course, it’s easy to read or write about it, but how do you KNOW it’s false labor?

Are my contractions the real thing?

You can tell if you are contracting for real by timing the breaks between contractions. If they come regularly and become more frequent as time moves on, you might have legit labor on your hands.

Another typical indicator of whether you’re in false labor vs. real labor is pain. Prodromal labor (Braxton-Hicks) contractions don’t typically hurt, where actual labor contractions typically do.

It’s not the case for everyone. Some ladies don’t feel contractions at all. Lucky them!

You can also usually tell if they’re real contractions by shifting your position. Usually, Braxton-Hicks contractions only happen on the front of your abdomen (while real labor contractions tend to stretch through your whole abdomen). False labor contractions also tend to cease when you move around a bit.

What do Braxton-Hicks contractions feel like?

Everyone feels things differently, so be sure to take this with a grain of salt.

That said, most women describe Braxton-Hicks contractions or false labor as a hardening or tightening in their abdomen. It’s your uterus flexing, which affects the surrounding areas.

If you’ve ever had very mild pressure or menstrual cramps that were just uncomfortable and not actually painful, that’s about as close as you can get to experience this without actually having Braxton-Hicks contractions.

Related: Using Pineapple Juice to Induce Labor? Does It REALLY WORK?

Abdominal pain that’s not labor

As you work through your pregnancy, usually starting in the second trimester, you may begin to experience a sharp, shooting pain on one or both sides of your abdomen.

This is typically round ligament pain, and it will not be your friend. It’s probably one of the more painful and frustrating things during pregnancy, particularly if you are overly sensitive to them.

What are they, though?

Basically, the round ligament is the strong gristly tissue that attaches your uterus to the surrounding bones.

And it hurts, because, well… you’re stretching the crap out of them.

Ever leave a rubber band tightly wound around something for too long? Remember how the rubber weathers and cracks? Well, it’s not that bad, but hopefully you get the idea.

As always, it’s worth mentioning that I’m not a doctor and I’m not giving medical advice. I share experience and provide food for thought, and hopefully, education that allows you to make informed decisions about your health.

Ah, the loveliness that is third trimester pain and symptoms. These essentials miiiiight help you get a little more comfortable.

Other causes of abdominal pain in pregnancy

That said, I did want to give you a few more ideas about what can cause abdominal pain before we move on.

Other abdominal pains can be gas, indigestion, a mild infection in your digestive tract, or something more serious like appendicitis or gall stones.

Fear not, my lovely mama-lady. If you’ve got something worse, you’ll typically have other symptoms, like vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, constipation, etc.

Yes, you definitely can expect to have some of these in phases or in combinations. If you’re ever in doubt, take the trip to the doctor.

More often than not, it’s gonna be nothing. Sometimes there’s something to worry about, though, so practice judgment and take care of yourself, mama.

RelatedEverything You Need to Know About Pelvic Pain During Pregnancy (Right Now!)

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How to stop prodromal labor

There’s really no harm in letting Braxton-Hicks contractions run their course–the common belief is that these small contractions are like your uterus “practicing” in order to strengthen the muscles responsible for the actual birth.

If they’re bugging you, though, there are a few things you can do.

  • We mentioned it before, but the best way to stop false labor contractions is to shift positions
  • You can also massage the area
  • Take a warm bath. Anything that relaxes the rest of you can ease the tension down south
  • Take a walk. It’s great for you and you can always use the fresh air, right?
  • Drink a big glass of cold water

False labor at 40 weeks?

Even though 40 weeks is typically when you can expect real labor vs. false labor, it is still possible to have false labor even at this point.

The reality is, you can experience Braxton-Hicks as early as a few days and as late as a few minutes before real labor. It’s all about the timing, so keep that stopwatch handy, mama.

Causes of prodromal labor

There’s not much academic proof or research to really say for sure why we have false labor. We already covered off on it, but it’s most likely that your body is just preparing itself for the big push.

Related: 9 Essential Hospital Bag Must-Haves for Labor and Delivery!

How to know when you’re actually in labor

On the flip side of all this is the actual labor contraction that indicates it’s time to get to the hospital ASAP.

True labor definition

I could probably go light here and say the definition of true labor is “a friggin baby is popping out”. You can imagine though, it basically means your body is preparing to evict your little freeloader.

How do you know when your contractions are the real thing? Well, at a high level, labor contractions are sudden, sharp, and regular.

The most important thing (I know, I said it, but it bears repeating) is to keep track of the frequency of your contractions. If they come in regular intervals, it’s time to worry.

Or celebrate, I guess. Yay!

They’ll usually be painful and the time between them will get shorter and shorter.

What do true labor contractions feel like?

A lot of women describe these contractions as a sharp pain or pressure.

True labor pain will typically start low and toward the back of your abdomen, and slowly work its way forward until your belly muscles tighten.

If you happen to have a silent cervix, you might not have much pain. What you will have is pressure, so pay close attention. You’ll have lots of pressure moving from the back to the front, and gradually it will push down like lots of poop trying to get out.

Pardon the poop talk, but let’s face it, mama. You will get very used to talking about poop for the next few years. No time like the present to start.

How long after false labor is real labor?

Other than the “practicing uterus” theory, there is really no direct correlation between false labor and real labor.

They work in the same building and they might even do a similar job. But they aren’t family, and they certainly don’t go places together.

Because of this, you can’t really expect for real labor to follow false labor in any sense of the word.

Does false labor lead to real labor?

False labor will not directly result in real labor. In a very real sense, though, you could say that false labor can lead to EASIER real labor.

If they’re right about false labor or Braxton-Hicks being the practice for the big show, it only follows that the show will come off with fewer hitches if you let them run their course.

RelatedSex During Pregnancy: 10 Popular Questions Answered!

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Time your contractions! Sorry, did I say that already?

But honestly, if you time them and they’re consistent, don’t bother calling. Just GO.

Beyond that, if you have some of those other symptoms we talked about regarding abdominal pain, be sure to check in with your care provider.

If contracts are paired with significant discharge or leakage, particularly if it’s red, get in touch with your care provider immediately.

Along with that, and kind of unrelated to false labor, watch out for any vaginal bleeding that’s more than a tiny smear. This is especially true if you have other symptoms like a fever.

If you have any persistent pain that falls outside the range of what you’d normally expect (round ligament, muscle fatigue, lower back pain), there’s never any harm in checking in.

This is particularly true if you have a lot of head rushes or pain/fainting or blurry vision that accompanies these pains.

Looking for more reason to call your provider? Read my complete guide to when to call the doc during pregnancy so you have all your bases covered.

The truth about true labor vs. false labor

Ultimately, your body already knows what is and isn’t labor, mama. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds and worry and stress, but you know what you need to do and you’re prepared to rock this birth.

As long as you’re ready to go at a moment’s notice, which you should be, you will have plenty of time to react to real labor. When you boil it down, true labor vs. false labor is really just a question of timing and preparation.

Happy baby-birthing, mama!

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Liesel Teen, BSN-RN
Founder, Mommy Labor Nurse

Meet Liesel Teen

Hi there. I’m Liesel!

As a labor and delivery nurse, I’ve spent countless hours with women who felt anxious — even fearful — about giving birth. I want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way for you!

When you know what to expect and have the tools to navigate the experience, you’ll feel confident and in control.

I believe you deserve a better birth — no matter how you deliver.