As the time of delivery approaches, you might notice that Braxton Hicks contractions become more frequent and intense. It is very common for women to think that they are experiencing actual labor and proceed to the hospital or call their midwife only to learn that it was a false alarm or “false labor.” How can you tell the difference between real labor and false labor? The following information can serve as a guide.

What is false labor?

Signs of false labor include:

  • Irregular and unpredictable contractions (for example, intervals between contractions of ten minutes, six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc.)
  • There is no progression of labor
  • Contractions are felt as a generalized abdominal tightening
  • Change in activity or body position causes contractions to slow down or stop
  • There is no evidence of bloody show
  • Membranes have not ruptured

False labor vs. the real thing:

How frequent are your contractions? Record your contractions using a watch or clock, jotting down the time the first contraction begins and the next one begins. True labor develops into a regular pattern, with contractions growing closer together. With false labor, contractions remain irregular.

How long does each one last? Record how long each contraction lasts by jotting down when it begins and when it stops. True labor contractions last more than 30 seconds at the onset and get progressively longer, up to 60 seconds, whereas false labor contractions vary in length and intensity.

Do the contractions continue with change in activity? The contractions in true labor continue regardless of the activity of the mother, and can grow even stronger with increased activity such as walking. False labor contractions often cease regardless of the mother’s activity.

Where do you feel the contractions? With true labor, the pain tends to begin high in your abdomen, radiating throughout your entire abdomen and lower back, or visa versa. In the case of false labor the contractions are often concentrated in the lower abdomen and groin.

But even after experiencing these signs of labor, you can’t be sure if you are actually in labor. Some women have painful contractions for days with no cervical changes while other women might feel only a little pressure and backache.

Should I go to the hospital or birth center?

Some women might disregard what they are feeling because their due date is weeks away only to find out at their regular checkup that they are fully dilated. On the other hand, some women leave for the hospital or birth center with regular contractions that are 3 minutes apart only to have them completely stop after they arrive. If this happens to you, you don’t need to feel embarrassed or frustrated. Rather, try to keep your thoughts positive and try to view the experience as a good practice run.

There are variations in these scenarios, but false alarms can be even more convincing in second and third labors in spite of the fact that those mothers have prior experience. So if you are in doubt, call your health care provider keeping in mind that if your contractions continue to get longer, stronger and closer together, it is probably the real thing!

Last Updated: 11/2006

Compiled using information from the following sources:

Planning Your Pregnancy and Birth Third Ed. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Ch. 8.

William’s Obstetrics Twenty-Second Ed. Cunningham, F. Gary, et al, Ch. 17.