Prodromal Labor in Pregnancy: Causes and Symptoms

pregnant woman in the car

You're an expectant mom and you're settling into bed after a long day, when you suddenly feel a tightening in your lower belly. That internal squeeze can only be one thing: a contraction. But did you know that contractions don't always mean you're in active labor?

Near the end of pregnancy, some people—especially first-time moms—might experience what is called prodromal labor, which is also called pre-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. G. Thomas Ruiz, M.D., an OB-GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, explains it is uterine activity that falls somewhere between Braxton Hicks contractions and active labor. Some experts believe it happens when babies move into the proper birthing position. Your risk might also increase if you have uterine or pelvic abnormalities, anxiousness about the pregnancy, or 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 change in the cervix. To be considered labor, a woman's cervix must actually change by opening or thinning out.

Dr. Ruiz explains that prodromal labor is still sometimes called "false labor" among many pregnant mamas-to-be. 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.

When Does Prodromal Labor Happen?

Prodromal labor happens for women 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, when a woman has been very active or on her feet a lot.

Dr. Ruiz notes that the majority of women will not encounter prodromal labor. It is, however, more likely to happen in first-time mothers because their uterus has not gone through labor yet. 

So how long does prodromal labor last? While the timeline is different for every woman, the average length of prodromal labor is about 24-72 hours. 

Prodromal Labor vs. Braxton Hicks Contractions

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

Braxton Hicks contractions: These false contractions are usually pain-free, sporadic, and irregular. 

Prodromal labor contractions: Not only are prodromal labor contractions consistent and uncomfortable, they usually have more of a pattern. They can last for a few hours, but they don't become more intense or get closer together.

Prodromal Labor vs. Active Labor

According to Dr. Ruiz, prodromal labor is not as intense or painful as real labor. Additionally, real labor contractions tend to become closer together, stronger, and longer as they progress.  Prodromal contractions pretty much stay the same, even if they happen over a long period of time. Here are some other ways to tell that you might actually be experiencing active labor:

Your water broke. 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 end your labor symptoms. Dr. Ruiz explains that if your contractions are actually prodromal labor, guzzling a lot of water or taking a warm shower will 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 chugging water or bathing is going to stop them.

Your contractions are 5-10 minutes apart. Dr. Ruiz advises women 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 seconds to one minute, 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 LaborĀ 

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 can be a frustrating experience for moms-to-be who go through it, 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 motherhood, we all do things a little differently, even when it comes to labor and contractions. Trust your body and when in doubt, head to the hospital to get checked if you think you might be in labor.


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