Prodromal Labor

Prodromal labor is often called “false labor,” and is somewhere in between Braxton Hicks contractions and active labor contractions. Prodromal labor is a part of labor, occurring before active labor but it does not progress toward delivery.

“Prodromal” comes from a Greek word meaning “precursor.” This is a great explanation for this type of labor since it typically comes hours, days, or weeks before active labor begins.

What is prodromal labor?

Prodromal labor consists of contractions that can be fairly regular (between 5-10 minutes apart) and can be painful like active labor contractions, more so than Braxton Hicks contractions. Typically each contraction will last just shy of one minute.

These contractions are preparatory. It is suggested that they may help encourage the baby into a suitable birthing position, that they prepare the muscles, ligaments, and pelvis for active labor, and they may help prepare the mother for what is soon coming:  active labor.

How can I tell the difference between prodromal and active labor contractions?

Though prodromal labor contractions come at fairly regular intervals and may be more painful than uncomfortable, there is often a break between these contractions and active labor. Prodromal contractions do NOT:

  • advance labor
  • increase in intensity
  • increase in frequency
  • cause continuing dilation or effacement of the cervix (it may affect it to some degree)

Will I be able to tell them apart without an exam by my healthcare provider?

It is not always easy to determine at home whether what you are experiencing is the “real thing” or not. Prodromal labor contractions may happen very close together (say, every 5 minutes) and may be more painful than the Braxton Hicks contractions you’ve already been through.

For women who have experienced prodromal labor before, they may be able to sort out if they’re experiencing the real deal. However, if it is your first pregnancy or if you have not gone through prodromal labor in previous pregnancies, it might take a trip to the doctor to be sure.

Most healthcare providers will begin by collecting information on the timing of your contractions if they’ve increased in intensity, and how long they have been going on for (so make sure you write it down!). The doctor or midwife will likely perform a pelvic exam to understand if your cervix has begun to dilate. If there is no sign of dilation, or if it is the same as the last exam or a very small change, then you are likely experiencing prodromal labor.

I’m embarrassed to call my doctor/midwife because I’m not sure if it’s the real thing…what should I do?

Call your doctor/midwife! If it’s between suffering from a little embarrassment and having an accidental home birth without a healthcare professional, it seems like a pretty easy choice. Like stated above, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between active and prodromal labor without a pelvic exam by your healthcare provider.

Remember – your healthcare provider hears this question all the time. You are not alone!

What are signs that prodromal labor might be progressing into active labor?

Like we mentioned above, it is not always possible to tell when prodromal contractions have become active labor contractions without a pelvic exam. However, if the contractions begin happening at very regular intervals under 5 minutes apart, they last for longer than 1 minute each, and this happens consecutively for over 1 hour, it may be time to call your healthcare provider. He or she can let you know at that time if you need to proceed to the birthing location or just to have an appointment.

How can I cope with prodromal labor?

During prodromal labor contractions, it is important to make sure you rest. Since there is the potential for active labor to occur not too much later, it is suggested that you conserve your energy for the actual labor and delivery.

Here are things you can try to do to keep your mind off of the contractions:

  1. Take a warm shower (not bath in case you are dilated at all).
  2. If it begins at night, try to get some sleep.
  3. Take a nap.
  4. Munch on some snacks.
  5. Drink water and/or a sports drink.
  6. Try light activity, such as packing your bag for the hospital.
  7. Take a short, leisurely walk.
  8. Do things that calm you:  read a book, drink safe herbal tea, listen to music, meditate, etc.

Try NOT to:

  1. Do more exhausting tasks like cooking, cleaning, or exercising.
  2. Feel bad asking for help! You don’t have to wait until after your baby arrives to ask for assistance.

Want to Know More?

Compiled using information from the following sources:

1. Sutter Health: Pre-Labor vs. True Labor.

2. Experimental Wifery: How To Survive Prodromal Labor.

3. Caritas Center for Women’s Health: For Your Information VI – Is It Labor?

4. Beth Curtis, retired Midwife. 2005.