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Prodromal Labor in Pregnancy: Causes and Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM
Learn how to distinguish between real labor and early labor.

How can you tell the difference between prodromal labor and actual labor?

When you are nearing the end of your pregnancy, you are probably just waiting for that moment your contractions begin. It’s time to get this show on the road!

But it’s hard to pinpoint the actual onset of labor when there are numerous types of contractions that aren’t the real event.

Not only do some moms experience Braxton-Hicks contractions, but prodromal labor can also give moms false hope. By understanding prodromal labor you will be better prepared to distinguish between real labor and early labor.

What Is Prodromal Labor?

Prodromal labor is a type of labor that occurs before the onset of active labor. It is often considered false labor, but this isn’t an accurate name. Healthcare professionals have noted the contractions associated with prodromal labor are real, but they tend to start and stop.

It is real labor regarding the contractions and their length and intensity, but they aren’t consistent — they come and go (1).

Chances are you have heard of prodromal labor, but probably by its other names — false labor, pre-labor, and latent labor.

These contractions are much like the ones associated with active childbirth but they will not result in the birth of your child, yet.

What Causes Prodromal Labor?

There are numerous things that could potentially cause prodromal labor, but we have not pinpointed one specific thing. Here are some of the contributing factors:

  • Baby’s position: It is believed these contractions are triggered to help move the baby into the birthing position. This is very likely for babies in the breech or posterior position. Breech means that the baby’s bottom is downward, whereas posterior means that the head is down but the baby is facing the wrong way (up towards your tummy). The reason the contractions start and stop is that your body stops if it is unsuccessful and then tries again (2).
  • Anxiety: If your emotions are heightened and you are feeling overly anxious or scared, you have a higher chance of experiencing prodromal labor.
  • Pregnancy history: If you have experienced at least three pregnancies, you are at an increased risk of experiencing prodromal labor because of the changes that have occurred in the uterus.
  • Abnormalities in the uterus or pelvis: Women who have an uneven pelvis or abnormality in the uterus tend to experience prodromal labor more often.

If you fall into one of these categories, it doesn’t mean you will experience prodromal labor for sure; it just means there is an increased potential.

When Can Prodromal Labor Start?

With prodromal labor, women can begin to feel the contractions days or hours before real labor begins. It is not unlikely for some women to suffer from prodromal labor for even weeks before actual active labor begins.

The length of prodromal labor is dependent upon your body and the position of your baby. Most women experience these contractions at night.

How Is It Different From Labor?

It is typical for prodromal labor contractions to occur less than every five minutes. They often stop for significant periods of time before picking back up.

Active labor is progressive and the contractions will not stop and restart. The closer together your contractions are, the further you have progressed in your labor.

If you are experiencing active labor contractions, they will become longer, stronger, and closer together (3).

Prodromal Labor Vs. Braxton-Hicks

Some believe prodromal labor and Braxton-Hicks contractions are the same things, but this is not true.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are not consistent or intense, while prodromal labor can have you feeling very intense and regular contractions.

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You can usually relieve Braxton-Hicks contractions if you lie on your side drink more water, empty your bladder or relax in the shower or tub. These things will not stop prodromal labor.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are often referred to as practice contractions, but they do not cause cervical dilation. It is common for prodromal labor to dilate or efface the cervix gradually.

Prodromal labor contractions can increase in intensity, but only up to a certain point. They will not lead you to delivery.

Does Prodromal Labor Signal Active Labor?

It is normal to experience prodromal labor at any time during your last month of pregnancy. It, unfortunately, does not mean active labor is right around the corner.

Each pregnancy is unpredictable, as is the timeline for when active labor will ensue.

The Symptoms and Signs Of Prodromal Labor

How can you be sure you are experiencing prodromal labor and not the beginning of active labor?

Here are some indications:

  • Minimal cervical dilation during a vaginal exam.
  • Contractions that are weaker than “true” labor and do not significantly increase in strength or frequency.
  • If contractions are intense, but then diminish.
  • The contractions are not accompanied by the water breaking.
  • You feel the contractions in the abdomen rather than moving from your back to the front.
  • Your contractions can start and stop with movement.

These symptoms are general because every pregnancy is different. You may experience some of these symptoms, but that does not necessarily mean you are experiencing prodromal labor.

How To Get Through Prodromal Labor

Prodromal labor can resemble active labor in pain — it just doesn’t stick around as long or result in a baby. Just because your bundle of joy isn’t at the end of your contractions doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely painful.

All moms prepare themselves for the pain of contractions during birth, but very few think about preparing for prodromal labor.

There are numerous things you can do to help take the edge off of those non-baby welcoming contractions.

  1. Accept it: Many moms try to downplay the severity of prodromal labor because they know it is not active labor. But because the pain you are feeling is real and is reflective of active labor, you need to treat it like so and not try to tough it out.
  2. Rest when you can: The contractions are real and they are most likely occurring at night. This can cause you to become fatigued before you even have that newborn keeping you up at night. Don’t feel guilty about napping when you can because you and your body need it more now than ever.
  3. Check dilation: Many moms struggle with frustration with prodromal labor because it is difficult to distinguish it from active labor. Schedule an appointment during the day to have your OB care provider to check your cervical dilation.
  4. Warm bath: A warm bath can help take the edge off of those contractions and provide you with some much-needed relaxation. Make sure, however, your bath water isn’t too hot because that isn’t good for your baby.
  5. Distraction: If you are experiencing prodromal labor during the day, distractions will help occupy your mind from the pain. This is easier said than done, but it is well worth a try. Some moms try knitting, others binge on Netflix, and some try to wash the baby clothes or start the baby book.
  6. Massage: Have your partner give you a massage or rub your belly. The massage will provide relief for your tense muscles and hopefully lessen the intensity you are feeling. If your partner is unwilling, consider trying a professional prenatal massage.
  7. Yoga: Exercise, including doing yoga poses, is probably far from your mind, but the gentle stretching that yoga provides can leave you with a sense of relief.
  8. Reposition yourself: Prodromal labor is usually not relieved when you reposition yourself, but the intensity can decrease in different positions, particularly side-lying, hands and knees, or squatting.
  9. Get moving: It’s likely your prodromal labor is a result of your baby being in the incorrect birthing position. If you get up and get moving, you will encourage your baby to make the transition into the proper position. This does not always work, but if your baby repositions there is a high chance your prodromal labor will end.
  10. Stay hydrated: If you are not getting enough fluids, the strength and intensity of the prodromal labor can become worse without bringing you any closer to meeting your baby. Dehydration can lead to many other issues for you and your baby.
  11. Keep eating: The pain associated with prodromal labor may make you cringe at the thought of food. It is important you are still getting enough nutrients for you and your baby. Try a simple snack like a banana or a granola bar. You will also appreciate the extra energy food supplies once active labor begins.
  12. Drink red raspberry leaf tea: If your doctor has approved you consuming this product, it can be beneficial for prodromal labor. It helps tone the uterus which will make contractions more effective. The more effective the contractions, the faster they will end.
  13. Focus on your breathing: You should treat prodromal labor like active labor. Find a breathing technique that works best for you and will help you make it through those painful contractions. The plus side to those prodromal contractions is that you are figuring out what methods work best for you before you enter active labor.

It is likely it will take a combination of the methods above to help give you some pain relief. Don’t feel discouraged if some things don’t work for you. Every pregnancy is different and your best relief might just come in the next method you try.

If you want to try exercise but haven’t been active throughout your pregnancy, you should consult your doctor or midwife before engaging in active exercise to ensure it is safe for you and your baby at this point in your pregnancy.

Should You Contact Your Doctor or Midwife?

If you think you are experiencing prodromal labor, feel free to contact your office. It is probably a wise decision to keep them informed so they can monitor your specific situation.

There is no need to panic, but contacting them can help you feel better about the situation and have any questions answered.

It is always best to be on the safe side considering there are similar symptoms between prodromal labor and active labor.

The Bottom Line

Prodromal labor can be a frustrating and exhausting time for an expectant mother. Nothing is worse than experiencing contractions that aren’t going to lead to the delivery of your baby.

It’s important you understand the difference between prodromal and active labor so you know when it is time to head to the hospital. It is okay to give your doctor or midwife a call to help you distinguish between the two and identify which one you are experiencing.

Treat prodromal labor the same as active labor. It is important you focus on yourself and find the best ways to stay well-rested and relaxed. Use prodromal labor as a practice run for the real deal.

It’s okay to feel discouraged with your prodromal pain, but know that it is preparing you for the active labor process and bringing you one step closer to meeting your beautiful baby.

Headshot of Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Medically Reviewed by

Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Caitlin Goodwin MSN, RN, CNM is a Certified Nurse-Midwife, clinical instructor and educator. She has ten years of nursing experience and enjoys blogging about family travel and autism in her free time.