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).
Prodromal labor symptoms
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).
Causes of prodromal labor
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.
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?