Prodromal Labor Symptoms & What You Can Do

You’re in your third trimester, you feel ready to pop, and you’re more than ready to finally meet your little nugget!

But when on-and-off contractions start before you’re full term, you may need to contain your excitement. Prodromal labor, also called false labor, is different than Braxton Hicks contractions, but it doesn’t mean baby is on the way… yet.

What is prodromal labor?

Prodromal labor is sometimes called false labor, but that term is misleading. Prodromal comes from the Greek word meaning precursor, and even though it only results in minimal cervical dilation, it’s considered an early stage of true labor—not false labor (Source). Some sources say that prodromal labor results in irregular contractions. However, women who have actually had prodromal labor contractions say that they increased in frequency and severity, just like “real” contractions.

What it isn’t

Prodromal labor is different from Braxton Hicks contractions, which are often painless, “practice” contractions, in which your uterus is simply preparing for the big day. Braxton Hicks don’t get longer, stronger and closer together like real labor and are generally higher up in the abdomen area versus low in pelvis.

Prodromal labor is also different than pre-term labor, which is when you go into labor and baby is born before reaching full term. You can read more about what Braxton Hicks feel like here, as well as more about pre-term labor here.

How is it different from “real” contractions?

Prodromal labor IS real labor, so even though it’s not time for baby just yet, these contractions can exactly mimic early contractions. Prodromal labor contractions can be sporadic, but they can also increase in frequency—but only up to a point; they won’t get you all the way to delivery. This can make things confusing. If the contractions are increasing in frequency, you might think, this must be the real deal! But hold your horses, Mama.

You may have already headed to the hospital or called the midwife when the contractions fizzle out and you’re told to just wait. Each labor is different, so there is no clear-cut textbook description of how it could happen for you or the next person.

“I personally feel that most descriptions (even from typically low-intervention oriented providers, many home birth midwives included) are at best too textbook, some narrow-minded, and some even inaccurate. In fact, some providers and birth professionals deny that prodromal labor even exists and may lump it into the very condescending phrase “false labor.” … The majority of descriptions are being written from the perspective of an outsider, usually a birth attendant. And even a wonderful birth attendant is not with the laboring woman for the entire start to finish process of labor.” – Source

When does prodromal labor happen?

Some women experience these prodromal labor contractions in the days or hours leading up to labor, while others are dealing with it for weeks (we’re not kidding!). It depends on your body and your baby as to how long the contractions may last. They typically happen at the same time of day, usually at night. For many, they follow a predictable pattern, though this pattern will vary between mamas, Source, Source).

Signs and symptoms of prodromal labor

So how do you know for sure that it’s prodromal labor and not something else?

  • A vaginal exam shows minimal cervical dilation
  • Contractions are weaker than “true” labor and don’t increase in frequency or strength
  • Or, if contractions are steady and even increase in strength, but then fizzle out
  • If the contractions are not accompanied by other signs of labor like bloody show or water breaking. However, the mucus plug may start to loosen with prodromal labor.
  • The contractions are in the abdomen instead of radiating from back to front.
  • Contractions stop and start after moving around.

Keep in mind that these aren’t hard and fast rules, as each labor is different (Source).

What causes it?

It’s thought that baby’s position is what causes prodromal labor. Your body is trying to get baby into the optimal birth position in preparation for the big day. Most often, the baby is in a posterior position, with the back of their head to your back. What you really want is for the baby to be facing your back. You can read more about belly mapping here, to know what position your baby is in.

How to change baby’s position

The first step is to use belly mapping to determine which direction your baby is facing. You can then use these 7 exercises to help encourage your baby be in a more optimal position for birth. Chiropractic care via the Webster Technique can be helpful for many pregnancy ailments, but it can also encourage a baby to turn.

“Childbirth texts estimate 15–30% of babies are occipital posterior (the back of their head is to the back of mama) in labor. Jean Sutton in Optimal Foetal Positioning describes that 50% of babies tend toward posterior in early labor upon admission to the hospital. Strong latent labor swings about a third of these to left occiput transverse (back of the baby’s head is to mama’s left and baby is facing her right) before dilation begins (in “pre-labor” or “false labor”).” – Source

How to get through it

  • You’re in labor, so act like it! Ask for help if needed, relax, and take it easy.
  • Use pain-relieving and breathing techniques like you would during active labor.
  • Get rest, and sip herbal tea as needed to stay calm.
  • Drink red raspberry leaf tea to help tone the uterus for more effective contractions.
  • Take a warm bath, and relax. Add a few drops of relaxing essential oils like lavender, or uplifting oils like lemon, lime, or orange.
  • Go to bed as usual, even if you’re dealing with contractions night after night. Don’t worry; you won’t be able to sleep through labor when it comes!
  • Have your partner give you a massage to help you relax. Use muscle-soothing essential oils like lavender and copaiba (but make sure to dilute in a bit of carrier oil like coconut or jojoba).
  • Visit an acupuncturist who has experience with pregnant women.
  • Gentle stretching like yoga can help.
  • Changing positions. Try moving around, sitting, or lying down to see what helps.
  • Practice meditation and relaxation techniques.
  • You and your partner can practice the breathing or visualizations you learned in your childbirth classes.
  • Distract yourself with something like cleaning or walking.

(Source, Source)

What NOT to do

If your birth provider has already checked you over and you know that it’s prodromal labor and not pre-term or actual labor, then it’s best to wait it out. Going to the hospital may be tempting, especially if you’ve been dealing with painful contractions for days or weeks, but it’s not a great idea (Source).

Hospital staffs often misread these contractions and may start you on Pitocin to help your “stalled” labor, even though you weren’t really in labor to begin with. This can start a cascade of interventions that all too often ends in an “emergency” C-section. Have patience, and wait until your little bun is really ready to come out of the oven.

Should I call my midwife or doctor?

Yes, definitely let them know what’s going on so that they can monitor your labor. But there’s no need to panic. They’ll be able to analyze your specific situation to make sure that you’re not going into premature labor. As always, if you have questions, or you’re just not sure of what’s going on, contacting your birth team is the safest option.

The bright side of prodromal labor

It’s hard to see the bright side of uncomfortable or painful contractions, especially when you know that you’re still not going to get a baby out of the deal just yet. There are, however, some positives here. Prodromal labor gives you relaxation and breathing technique practice for delivery day. Also, those who experience prodromal labor often have very quick labors and deliveries. So think of it as getting some of the time spent in labor out of the way early. You’ve got this, mama!

Did you experience contractions during the third trimester? What did you find to help ease them?

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13 Comments

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  1. I was in ” False Labor” for 8 hours !!!
    Only dilated to a 2! Nothing was happening I was so confused! This would be my 5th baby and I’m 37 weeks , and this has never happened to me.
    I went to the hospital at 2 hours at home trying to figure it…. ” is it time, yet???” is this for real? I’m not ready … it’s only 37 weeks???
    All these questions at 0400. Woke up my husband and went to the hospital.
    Man! After all that – nothing – no baby !!
    But I did learn , sitting on a yoga ball and swaying side to side made it feel so much more manageable than lying there taking all that pain.
    Here’s to having a full term pregnancy and praying that THAT! never happens again 😊

  2. I went into what I thought was true labor with my son at 40+4 weeks. Contractions started at around 10 pm and by 2 am I was unable to lay comfortably in bed so I got up to take a shower thinking that we would have a baby that day (oh baby, was I wrong!) By 5 am my contractions had intensified enough that we called the midwife to check in. She listened to me on the phone for a couple of contractions and told me that I was probably about 5 to 6 cm dilated and to go ahead and head to the hospital. When we got to the hospital they took me up to triage to do a cervical check and put me on the contraction monitor. My contractions were getting pretty hard to bear, but I was only 3 cm dialated. My husband and I walked around labor and delivery until 7 AM when they checked my cervix again and found that I was forced 4 cmdilated and admitted me to the natural birthing room. By 10 AM my contractions had almost completely fizzled out, and they age us the option to go home and come back in later. We got home around 2 PM and I took a bath and then try to relax on the couch. My contractions started up again around 5 PM and I was able to stay home and till about midnight. Finally the contractions were so bad and were lasting so long that I was starting to get scared. It didn’t feel normal, and it didn’t feel right. I was having contractions that were lasting between five and 15 minutes, with a two minute break in between. Finally we got back to the hospital and back at the triage where they put the contraction monitor on my belly again. As we were looking at the graph on the contraction monitor, my contractions were shooting up to the intensity of true labor and were still lasting between five and 15 minutes each. The nurse was baffled. My mother and husband both felt helpless. No one seems to know what I was going through. Finally at 2 AM we decided to get an epidural. I have been up for over 24 hours dealing with contractions that were unbearable and unpredictable. After my epidural, I was able to sleep for a few hours in around 5 AM I started having normal contractions. I remember looking at the contraction monitor and laughing to myself because the contractions but so predictable and so normal and so much less intense than what I’d been experiencing just hours before. My son finally arrived at 2 PM that afternoon after 41 hours of labor. By the time it was time to push, my epidural had mostly worn off and I was able to to feel everything that was happening, which is what I wanted. At my six week postpartum appointment, I asked my midwife what had happened with my labor, and she responded that it sounded like I’ve had a very intense prodromal labor. After much research, most of the things that I saw said the prodromal labor with “false labor”. I am here to tell you there was nothing false about my labor. It just didn’t follow the normal track that most other women’s do. My son was 9 pounds 12.5 ounces when he was born, so I really believe that his positioning in utero was what caused my prodromal labor. I’m already researching techniques and methods to help with my next labor in case this is something we have to deal with again.

  3. I just delivered my second baby. At 35 weeks I had contractions every 3-5 min for 24 hours. No dilation and while not very painful I would loose my breath and get very hot during the contractions. This happened again at 36 weeks. When I actually went into labor at 37 weeks the contractions were similar but wrapped from low uterus all the way to my back, as described in this article. I delivered 4 hours after my water broke, successful VBAC!

  4. I had prodromal labor for a month prior to my sons birth and once active labor started, he came in 3 hours. I am pregnant with my third and again started prodromal labor at 36 weeks. It’s much easier to deal with this time as I know better what my body wants to do (and I’m all for a short active labor and delivery!). I’ve been taking many baths with essential oils and drinking red raspberry leaf tea, which has helped greatly. My husband has been great to allow me to nap during the day because my bouts of contractions have been keeping me up at night.

    Thank you for this article!!

  5. I was so confused about what was going on with my contractions until this article! Thank you so much! I’m 41 weeks today ave have been having prodromal labor since Thursday. I’ve been losing my mucus plug slowly but surely over the past few days and my cervix is really soft but hasn’t dilated yet. I was feeling discouraged until I read your article and the comments. I’m believing God for supernatural birth and this is helping me get there!

    • You can do it Lysette! Stay positive, keep the faith, and best wishes for an awesome birth! ❤️

  6. I had contractions that started on a Thursday evening and i didn’t deliver until the following Wednesday. They would get to be every 2-3 minutes apart overnight and by morning would fizzle to every 15-30 minutes. I went to hospital Sunday morning and was only 2cm and didn’t dilate any further after waiting nearly 2 hours to be checked again. I started to have pretty intense contractions around midnight and my water finally broke at 4cm around 4am Wednesday morning, delivered at 330pm after I pushed for 3+ hours and still needed vacuum assist. It was absolutely exhausting. Prodromal labor is for the birds! I didn’t sleep for daaaays leading up to birth and certainly didn’t get to catch up afterward!

  7. I had prodomal labor with my first, and wound up going to the hospital three times in “false” labor. The fourth time I didn’t progress fast enough for the nurse, even though it was true labor. (Three hospital births later, I’m glad to say she proved to be the exception to all the amazing nurses I have met.) Once I experienced active labor, I was able to tell the difference. Still, doctors usually will tell you to have yourself checked out “just in case,” which can be frustrating to make a trip to the hospital just to be discharged. You grow older and wiser, but to any mom who has or will be there… no shame in making an extra trip! Just call it practice for the real hospital run! 😉

  8. I am currently pregnant with our fourth baby. I’ve had prodromal labor with my previous three from about 29-37 weeks. Each pregnancy I hope I can avoid it, but I guess that’s just what my body does. I usually start dilating at that 29 week mark and make it to around 4-5cm by 35 weeks until I fully go into labor around 37 weeks. Hardest weeks of my life! It does make for very short labors though. My third was born in 47 minutes.

  9. This is a great article and I learned a lot from it. The only thing I would say is that most of the time you are absolutely right, most won’t be able to sleep through active labor, but I do have a friend who did with her second child and woke up to her baby crowning! Obviously an uncommon occurrence but maybe one that should be looked into. Thank you so much for the great website! I’m a home-birthing natural mom at 37 weeks with number 3 looking forward to another midwife assisted water birth.

  10. I was in prodromal labor with my daughter for 4 days with my daughter. I remember going home early from work the Friday before my daughter was born because I was having painful contractions which continued but never increased in intensity nor stayed consistent until about midnight Saturday morning. They allowed me to sleep till about 6 am where I woke up from the pain again. I had this the whole weekend prior to my daughter’s birth. I had my midwife check me that Monday who told me I was “in labor” since I was at a 5. My labor didn’t leave the “prodromal” stage until I hit a 6 and my midwife decided to break my water to get my contractions consistent. I technically labored for about an hour and pushed for less than 5 minutes because of my prodromal labor. It was frustrating at the time but in hindsight it allowed me a really quick and easy natural birth.

  11. Thank you for this post – really helped me dealing with my prodromal labour! I had contractions​ almost every night for two weeks, which would fizzle out in the morning. In the end my real labour was only two hours, and I ended up birthing our baby boy at home with our amazing doula – no time to get to the hospital!
    This was my second birth, first one was 60 hours of labour, pitocin induction, epidural.
    Such a different experience this time around, so grateful for the gift of an amazing birth!

  12. Dear mama Natural,
    Thanks so much for posting this. I feel like this describes my exact situation. At this point I am 41 weeks pregnant, have had contractions for 3 days now and nothing has happened yet. The contractions were more than a minute long, they have been going on for periods of hours: coming for every 5 minutes but also every 10 minutes and added to that; also in a very irregular form. To my husband and me this has been very hard and frustrating. Every night we are convinced that baby surely will come soon. To find out the next morning that nothings has changed yet and contractions have stopped again.
    My baby is in a good position, I am in good health and condition (I’ve been drinking the tea, eating all the dates, doing all the exercises etc.). So this situation is really making me desperate and emotional.
    I hope our baby is coming soon…

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