Here you are at 38, 39, 40, maybe even 41 or 42 weeks pregnant. You’re emotional, excited, and ready to meet your baby. Let’s be honest—you’re probably also exhausted, uncomfortable and uber-tired of the endless trips to the bathroom. All you’ve got to do now is wait for labor to start…
And while it seems easy enough to just hang out and chill until your uterus kicks into gear, knowing when you’re actually in labor is often easier said than done. Was that a contraction? A cramp? A reaction to last night’s dinner? Here’s how to know if and when labor is for real.
What is false labor?
False labor, also called prodromal labor, is a common experience as you approach your due date. Chances are, you’ve felt a Braxton Hicks or two over the course of your pregnancy, but false labor is a little more than that quick, tight feeling. These “warm up contractions” often happen at night, when you’re dehydrated, or when you’ve just completed strenuous exercise.
Prodromal labor is somewhere in between Braxton Hicks and labor contractions—you may experience multiple contractions and you might actually think you’re going into labor.
False labor, also called prodromal labor, is a common experience as you approach your due date.
Prodromal labor is a tricky beast. For many women, it feels totally real—painful and strong. But it isn’t the real thing. The contractions may dilate or soften your cervix a bit, but they don’t lead to imminent birth.
Why you want to avoid false alarms
It’s totally and completely normal to have non-labor contractions or experience false labor and worry that you’re going to go into labor soon. Many women will have false alarms and head to the hospital only to be sent home. Still, false labor can cause quite a bit of unnecessary anxiety, worry, and panic in expectant parents. When you’re waiting to meet your baby, every tiny twinge can leave you thinking, “is this it?”
Although it isn’t a problem, problems can follow. Lost sleep, canceled activities, and pointless trips to the hospital or birth center can all result from false labor scares. Who wants to spend time sitting in a tiny hospital triage room, just to be told you’re at 1 cm with rapidly diminishing contractions? Yeah, no one.
It’s also common for labor to stall once you arrive at your chosen birthplace (especially if you’re laboring under fluorescent lights!), so that’s why it’s a good idea to go in when labor is in full force, not when contractions are mild or intermittent.
Prodromal labor can be exhausting and annoying, especially if you experience it over a period of days. Knowing the signs of non-labor, false labor vs full-on labor can help you make good decisions about your labor and birth.
This knowledge may even save you time, energy, and unnecessary medical interventions.
Knowing the signs of non-labor contractions vs. false labor vs full-on labor MAY save you time, energy, and unnecessary medical interventions.
From prodromal labor to real labor
So how can you tell if and when labor has truly started and baby is on the way? We’re not going to lie—it can be confusing. After all, prodromal labor may feel pretty darn convincing. But there are a few hallmarks you can use to determine if what you’re feeling is the real deal or just a long warm-up.
False labor contractions may be erratic, in terms of both time and intensity. They may come every two minutes, then twelve, then seven, for a varied amount of time. You might even be able to sleep through them. Often, prodromal labor contractions are felt mostly in the front of the uterus.
If the contractions stop when you use the bathroom, drink water, change positions, or lie down when they’re probably not the real thing. Ditto if they cease when you take a bath or shower.
The key difference is that “real” labor contractions tend to occur at regular intervals and get closer together as time goes on. Generally, contractions during labor last about 30-60 seconds, getting longer as labor progresses. They also increase in intensity, don’t change with movement or position, and are often felt in both the front of the body and the back.
“Real” labor contractions occur at regular intervals and get closer together as time goes on.
These kind of contractions often require your full focus to get through them, including concentrated breathing. Labor contractions may also be accompanied by increased vaginal discharge or spotting, which is a good sign that your cervix is dilating.
You can read more about other signs of labor HERE.
Timing your contractions
One of the best ways to tell if labor has really started (from the comfort of home) is to time your contractions (the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians agrees). There are plenty of contraction timer apps out there to help you and your partner understand your contractions, but a watch and a piece of paper will also work just fine in a pinch.
Your peace-of-mind and confidence is the key to preventing stress and those annoyingly-futile drives to the hospital. Getting to know what is normal for you when it comes to your pregnancy and your contractions can help you better determine when things change.
This information is meant to get you started and should be used to facilitate, but never replace, conversation with your birth team. If you have any concern at any point, contact your healthcare provider.