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Prodromal Labor in Pregnancy: Causes and Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM
Updated
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. The contractions associated with prodromal labor are real in length and intensity, but they aren’t consistent and don’t change the cervix (1).

Chances are you have heard of prodromal labor but probably by 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?

Numerous things can cause prodromal labor. Here are some of the contributing factors:

  • Baby’s position: Experts believe 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 facing the wrong way (up toward your tummy). The contractions start and stop because your body stops trying if it is unsuccessful in moving the baby and then tries again (2).
  • Anxiety: If you have heightened emotions and feel 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 already occurred in your uterus.
  • Uterus or pelvis abnormalities: 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 you have an increased chance.

When Can Prodromal Labor Start?

With prodromal labor, women can begin to feel the contractions days or hours before actual labor begins. And some women suffer from prodromal labor for weeks before active labor begins.

The length of prodromal labor depends on your body and your baby’s position. Most women experience these contractions at night.

How Is It Different From Labor?

Prodromal labor contractions typically occur less than every five minutes. They often stop for significant periods before picking back up.

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

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

Prodromal Labor Versus Braxton-Hicks

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

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

Try This

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. Unfortunately, it 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:

  • Contractions that are weaker than “true” labor and do not significantly increase in strength or frequency.
  • A vaginal exam shows minimal cervical dilation.
  • Contractions are intense but then diminish.
  • The water breaking does not accompany contractions.
  • 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 are general symptoms 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 — but it doesn’t stick around as long or result in a baby. But just because your contractions don’t end with a bundle of joy doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely painful.

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

You can do numerous things to help take the edge off those non-baby-producing contractions.

  1. Accept it: Many moms try to downplay the severity of prodromal labor because they know it is not active labor. But the pain you are feeling is real and is reflective of active labor. You can treat it as such without having to tough it out.
  2. Rest when you can: Prodromal labor contractions are real and tend to occur at night. This can cause you to become fatigued. Don’t feel guilty about napping when you can because your body needs it more now than ever.
  3. Check dilation: Many moms get frustrated with prodromal labor because it is difficult to distinguish from active labor. Schedule an appointment to have your care provider check your cervical dilation.
  4. Warm bath: A warm bath can help take the edge off the contractions and provide you with some much-needed relaxation. However, make sure your bath water isn’t so hot that it puts your baby at risk.
  5. Distraction: If you are experiencing prodromal labor during the day, distractions will help distract you from the pain. Some moms try crafting, others binge on Netflix, and others wash their baby clothes or start working on a 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 you don’t have a partner or your partner is unwilling or unable to offer a masssage, consider getting 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 results from your baby being in the incorrect birthing position. If you get up and move, you will encourage your baby to 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 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. But it is essential that you and your baby are still getting enough nutrients. Try a simple snack like a banana or 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 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 prodromal contractions is that you can figure 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 health care provider. 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 prodromal labor and active labor have similar symptoms.


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 to head to the hospital. It is okay to call your doctor or midwife to help you distinguish between the two and identify which contractions you are experiencing.

Treat prodromal labor the same as active labor. It is important for you to 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 prepares you for the active labor process and brings you one step closer to meeting your beautiful baby.

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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.