Think you might be dealing with prodromal labor? You’re in the right place!
You see once you hit your third trimester, it’s common to think that every abnormal ache, twinge, or cramp you feel in your belly is the start of labor! It really can get pretty confusing, especially for first-time moms.
The thing is, once labor really starts, you have to just trust me that you’re going to know! But I will admit, when prodromal labor and Braxton Hicks get thrown into the mix, it can be a little trickier to know.
So, with that in mind, I put together this article as a little guide to prodromal labor, and to answer the all too common questions related to true labor vs. prodromal labor.
Let’s talk about true labor and prodromal labor contractions, mama!
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What is prodromal labor?
Prodromal labor is labor that starts and stops before full-on labor begins. It can last for days or weeks, and usually does! Prodromal labor is very similar to how early labor feels (painful contractions at regular intervals), but it doesn’t change your cervix (in any significant way, anyway).
Prodromal labor is sometimes confused with Braxton Hicks’s contractions, but they aren’t really the same! Braxton Hick’s are usually painless and bearable, and prodromal labor is just a b*itch!
It can be really confusing for many women because they don’t know when to come in for labor. Sometimes prodromal labor contractions can be 4-5 minutes apart, which is typically when many women arrive at their hospitals/birth centers.
Research suggests that these contractions are preparing your body for the real deal. They may help get baby into position, strengthen your muscles for labor, and get your pelvis ready for the main event.
What should I do if I’m having prodromal labor?
If you are experiencing prodromal labor try to focus on resting in between your contractions as best you can, do lots of position changes as needed, and even take a warm bath to help relax and ease the pain.
It can also be a signal of a great time to start doing some things to try to naturally induce spontaneous labor.
Assuming your prodromal labor is starting between 38 and 39 weeks, this is a great time to start doing the Miles Circuit, curb walking, and spending lots of time on your birthing ball.
What is false labor?
Okay, so false labor is when you are having consistent contractions, but then the contractions suddenly stop. False labor contractions may happen for an hour or even a couple of hours. They will be painful and similar to early labor contractions, but the key is that they stop.
This is different than prodromal labor because prodromal labor eventually turns into active labor, while false labor does not.
A period of false labor can actually dilate your cervix some. So, I wouldn’t say that false labor doesn’t cause cervical change, it definitely can cause a small amount of effacement and dilation – but it’s not quite time for the big show if that makes sense.
This isn’t super common, but it certainly does happen, and if it does don’t panic. If it’s real labor then you will know and it won’t stop. If false labor happens to you it can definitely be frustrating, but try to focus on the fact that it is your body’s way of warming up and that things should kick it gear for real very, very soon!
Are my contractions the real thing?
The thing about labor contractions is that once your real ones start – you’re going to know! I know that’s not what first-time mamas want to hear, but trust me on this!! There are the rare women that don’t feel labor pain, but as an L&D nurse, I can tell you that is SUPER unusual.
To ease your mind a bit, here are the clues that’ll tell you that your contractions are the real thing:
- They usually follow a pattern: This means they come at regular intervals and last for relatively the same length of time. Over time the interval between contractions will become shorter and the length of the contraction will get longer
- They are painful: Even when they are just starting, real labor contraction are painful. Many women (including myself!) describe them as very strong period cramps, and as labor progresses, they will intensify to what many describe as the worst period cramps of your life (I know that sounds dramatic –but it’s truly the best way I can help you imagine it)
- They don’t stop or decrease in frequency: If you are experiencing real labor contractions (even very early in labor) lying down, moving around, drinking water, eating, or anything else will not cause the contractions to stop or decrease in frequency. It may make them more tolerable, but they will continue to get stronger
True labor definition
So “true labor” isn’t actually a term that we use at the hospital or that is used by medical professionals, but when you guys ask me questions about labor – it’s a term that always comes up! I think it’s just a way of saying “the real deal” or “actual labor”.
In short, the way you’re going to know that you’re really in labor is when your contractions are doing the things we just reviewed. They’re going to be painful, following a pattern, and not stopping no matter what you do!
What do true labor contractions feel like?
You see, your uterus is a muscle. It’s a huge muscle that contracts and releases similarly to every other muscle in your body! Your uterus has actually been contracting your whole life and only now that it’s much bigger (because you’re pregnant!) you are starting to realize it!
And for many women, contractions feel like really intense period cramps! They kind of start in your low belly and often wrap around your back. Inside of my birth classes, we go into this way more in-depth!
The stages of labor
So how many of you out there know that labor has four stages? I know it can’t be many of you – in fact, before I became a labor and delivery nurse, I didn’t even know this!
- The first stage of labor: This is the contraction part. It starts with your first contractions and goes until you are 10 centimeters. For most mamas this is the longest stage of labor
- The second stage of labor: This is the pushing part. It starts when you hit 10 centimeters and ends when your baby comes out
- The third stage of labor: This is when you deliver the placenta. It begins after baby comes out and ends when your placenta emerges
- The fourth stage of labor: The fourth, and final stage, encompasses the first hour or two after birth. It’s a time where you’ll be monitored closely for postpartum hemorrhage and other potential complications
Related: The Four Stages of Labor Explained
The first stage of labor
But for the purposes of this article, you’re going to be thinking about that first stage of labor and whether it’s the real deal or just prodromal labor. The first stage involves early labor, active labor and transition. Which we can break down like this:
- Early labor – This includes painful contractions that might be irregular. They don’t stop and eventually get more intense and more frequent which is when they turn into active labor. You can be in early labor for hours or days. For your reference, the terms early and latent labor are interchangeable
- Active labor – We generally describe active labor starting when you are 6 centimeters. You’ll be experiencing painful, regular contractions that are dilating your cervix. Usually once you are in active labor (for FTMs) you will dilate a centimeter every hour to hour and a half. Obviously that varies from one person to the next, but that’s our general rule of thumb
- Transition – So this is a term that has a couple different definitions based on who you ask. I usually describe transition as 8-10 centimeters. Some people describe it as the switch from early labor to active labor. Transition to me is when things get insanely intense, for a mom going natural that usually is around 8cms
What about Braxton Hicks contractions?
When you have a Braxton Hicks contraction, your uterus will gently tighten for 30-60 seconds (but sometimes as long as 2 minutes). For mama, this can feel like a period cramp or a tightening across the stomach.
What’s different about Braxton Hicks contractions from labor contractions, is that they are typically infrequent, unpredictable, and irregular. This means you may have a few back-to-back for a few minutes, but then not have one for a few hours or days.
In comparison to true contractions, they are described as more uncomfortable than painful!
Abdominal pain during pregnancy 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 can sometimes confuse mamas and make them think it’s labor.
But typically this is actually round ligament pain! It’s probably one of the more painful and frustrating things during pregnancy, particularly if you are overly sensitive to them.
Okay, so you have a round ligament that helps support the uterus by connecting the front of the uterus to the groin region. It’s cord-like, and as your pregnancy progresses, it stretches. Sometimes, depending on your anatomy, it might stretch a little more on one side than the other.
As this ligament stretches, it’s more likely to spasm or tighten. When this happens, you can have pain!
Round ligament pain is most common during position changes, but some women experience it constantly, especially as they get further and further in their pregnancies.
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:
- A mild infection in your digestive tract
- Something more serious like appendicitis or gall stones.
But do keep in mind that 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, just give your provider a call and trust m that we’d rather hear from you for a false alarm than have something go unnoticed!
When should I call my healthcare provider?
The main thing you’re going to want to do if you think you’re having labor contractions is to start timing them! Knowing the right way to count your contractions is really important for laboring at home and deciding when it’s time to head to the hospital or call your provider.
The length of a contraction and how frequently they’re happening can give you a big clue as to where you’re at in your labor (think early vs. active labor for example). And it can also help you determine if what’s going on might be false labor, prodromal labor, or just pesky Braxton Hicks, too.
So now let’s make sure you know how to accurately time them!
When we talk about counting (or timing) contractions we talk about two main things, duration and frequency. Here are some more details about those two terms:
- Frequency: This measures how often you’re contracting. To measure the frequency of your contractions you track the length of time from the START of one contraction to the START of the next contraction.
- Duration: This measures how LONG a contraction lasts. To measure this, you start your timer when you feel the contraction start, and stop your timer when the contraction releases!
There are quite a few awesome and free apps to help you time your contractions. I love to tell mamas to download one and get familiar with it before you’re in labor so that you’re ready to use it when things pick up.
Other reasons to call your provider when you’re experiencing abdominal pain:
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 contractions 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 reasons to call your provider? Read my complete guide to when to call the doc during pregnancy so you have all your bases covered.
Don’t let prodromal labor get you down
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 try to trust the process and know that baby will come when they are ready!
Aaand that there’s never any harm in calling your provider if you’re not quite sure what’s going on.
In the meant time, let me point you towards some other relevant articles and resources so you can continue to prepare:
- Third Trimester Checklist to Get You Totally Prepared Before You’re Due
- Prepare for Labor and Birth: 10 Things Not to Skip from an L&D Nurse
- 23 Important Ways to Advocate for Yourself During Birth and Pregnancy