What Is Prodromal Labor?

Also Called False Labor

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Prodromal labor, also called “false labor” or “prelabor,” is a labor that starts and then stops before active labor begins.

Prodromal labor is different from Braxton Hicks contractions in that prodromal labor begins in the month leading up to your estimated due date, tends to follow a pattern, and can be uncomfortable. Braxton Hicks contractions, on the other hand, can happen throughout pregnancy, do not follow a pattern, and are usually not painful.

During prodromal labor, your uterus contracts, often in a pattern. Unlike real labor, the cervix does not change as a result of prodromal labor contractions. The lack of a change in the cervix is the main clinical distinction from active labor. The cervix must dilate and efface to be considered “true” labor.

Prodromal labor can come and go over a period of days or even weeks. It can be frustrating to deal with, but it is generally not a health concern.

Pregnant person experiencing a contraction at home

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Signs/Symptoms of Prodromal Labor

Prodromal labor can be difficult to spot because contractions often begin in the month leading up to when you expect to go into labor. Some signs may indicate that you are experiencing prodromal labor.

Signs of prodromal labor include:

  • Contractions that come and go
  • Contractions that have a pattern
  • Contractions that do not progressively increase in duration
  • Contractions that do not progressively get closer together
  • Contractions that eventually stop

Your cervix does not dilate or efface during prodromal labor. During early labor, the cervix slowly dilates to 6 centimeters, then during active labor dilates to 10 centimeters.

A pelvic exam would be the only way to determine whether your cervix is changing. Other signs of true early labor include passing loose stools and the loss of your mucus plug.

Prodromal labor and Braxton Hicks are similar in that neither lead to labor progression. But there are some differences.

Prodromal Labor
  • Contractions begin in the month leading up to your due date

  • Contractions may feel like menstrual cramps

  • Contractions may follow a pattern

Braxton Hicks
  • Contractions can begin very early in pregnancy—often the second trimester

  • Contractions feel like a tightening sensation

  • Contractions are random and do not follow a pattern

Causes

There is no known cause of prodromal labor. It is believed that prodromal labor is simply the body’s way of preparing for labor.

When To Call a Healthcare Provider

Prodromal labor is usually not a medical concern, but if you are unable to walk through contractions or if your contractions are five minutes apart for an hour, you may be in active labor. Call your healthcare provider for advice.

Also, if you experience any of the following warning signs, be sure to call your healthcare provider right away:

  • Bright red vaginal bleeding
  • Your water breaks or you are leaking fluid
  • Noticeable change in your baby’s movement

If you are experiencing contraction-like pain any time before 37 weeks, call your healthcare provider to determine if you need to be evaluated for preterm labor.

Diagnosis

Since prodromal labor is not considered a medical emergency or complication, it does not generally require a diagnosis. However, if you have been experiencing on-again-off-again contractions, your healthcare provider or midwife may diagnose prodromal labor or “false labor.”

Clinically, this can be confirmed by contractions that do not lead to cervical change. In addition, cervical length of 1.5 centimeters or less has been found to be the most clinically accurate indicator of true labor.

Treatment

Prodromal labor does not generally require intervention unless other risk factors are present. The standard course of treatment is to wait and allow labor to start on its own.

Causes for concern include:

  • Your water has broken or you are leaking fluid from the vagina
  • You are bleeding heavily from the vagina
  • You experience no break between contractions
  • Your baby is moving less often

Risk Factors

Prodromal labor has no known cause so it is difficult to say who is at risk for experiencing prodromal labor. Most of the time the occurrence is completely random. If you had prodromal labor with one pregnancy, it does not mean you will have it with another.

Coping

Prodromal labor can be frustrating to experience. Just when you think you’ve arrived at the main event, your labor stops. This may happen over and over. Some people feel like they’ll be in an endless loop of prodromal labor forever.

The good news is this never happens. Rest assured that if a vaginal delivery is planned, you will go into labor or your healthcare provider or midwife will help you go into labor and your baby will be born.

In the meantime, it can be good to consider coping techniques. Things that help with early labor also work well for coping with prodromal labor.

Techniques for coping include:

  • Relaxation techniques that you learned in childbirth preparation classes
  • Take a walk
  • Change positions often
  • Take a bath
  • Take a nap
  • Distract yourself with normal activities
  • Drink lots of water
  • Stay nourished with meals and snacks

One of the most difficult things about prodromal labor is that it can be mentally and emotionally draining. Try to remind yourself that your body is doing important preparatory work for birthing your baby. 

Even though prodromal labor is often referred to as “false labor,” that name is a misnomer. Prodromal labor contractions help your baby prepare for labor and give you the opportunity to practice coping with labor.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing prodromal labor you may be feeling frustrated, exhausted, or defeated. All of those emotions are normal and understandable. By the end of pregnancy, you’re ready to get the show on the road and meet your baby. Labor that starts and stops can be an emotional rollercoaster.

Try to remember that prodromal labor is valuable preparation for eventual labor. Utilize coping techniques that you learned in childbirth preparation class, stay upright and mobile, and think of ways to pass the time. Prodromal labor, while tiring, often means that labor is near.

If you experience any warning signs, such as less frequent fetal movement, you are leaking fluid from the vagina, your water breaks, you are bleeding from the vagina, or are experiencing contractions that are close together, call your healthcare provider.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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