What Is Prodromal Labor?

How to cope with ongoing practice contractions before active labor

Pregnant woman uncomfortable

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Toward the end of pregnancy, many women have contractions that seem to go nowhere. The experience can be stressful, annoying, or even scary—especially if this pattern drags out for days or weeks. But such is the reality of prodromal labor, and any mom who has been there will tell you that it can be one of the most frustrating and anxiety-producing symptoms of pregnancy.

The good news is that prodromal labor is quite common and not harmful to you or your baby. When the real thing hits, you'll know it's active labor because your contractions will progressively get stronger, closer together, and they won't stop if you change your activity or position.

What Is Prodromal Labor?

Although prodromal labor isn’t a term used in most medical literature, many doctors and midwives use it to describe "practice" contractions (also called "false labor") that happen before active labor. However, prodromal labor is not experienced in all pregnancies.

The term is also used to distinguish them from Braxton Hicks contractions, which are less painful and consistent. Only the contractions of active labor will bring on actual labor but both of these precursors to the main event are thought to help prepare the body for labor and delivery.

In fact, the word “prodromal” is derived from the Greek “precursor,” and that’s a good way to describe what it is. Although it has many of the hallmark aspects of labor (painful contractions that come in prolonged intervals), prodromal labor is not strong enough to bring on the cervical changes needed for active labor.

In fact, prodromal labor can come and go for many weeks or even months before you actually give birth, which is part of why it's such an irritating experience for many pregnant women. The other aspect of prodromal labor that bothers many people that it can be downright confusing, especially as prodromal labor shares so many symptoms of real labor.

How to Tell If It's Prodromal Labor

Many moms simply want to know how to tell if they are in prodromal "false" labor or "real" labor. In some cases, especially if this is your first instance of prodromal labor, the best way to tell is to call your healthcare provider and discuss your symptoms.

Depending on their judgment, your healthcare provider may have you come into the office to perform an exam to see if your cervix has dilated or not, and whether your body is preparing for birth in any other significant way.

If all of the below conditions are true, however, you are likely experiencing prodromal labor rather than active labor:

  • You are in your third trimester, usually toward the end of it.
  • You are experiencing contractions that are intense and possibly painful.
  • Your contractions are regular (usually about 5–10 minutes apart) but not getting closer together.
  • Although your contractions may have some regularity to them, they also stop and start, don’t become more intense, and don’t “take your breath away.”
  • You aren’t experiencing other signs of impending labor, such as ruptured waters, loss of your mucus plug, or bleeding (the "bloody show" of active labor).

For most women who experience prodromal contractions, they occur during the very end of their pregnancies. However, some women experience it beginning at the end of their second trimester or the beginning of their third trimester. It's most common in first pregnancies and doesn't necessarily repeat in subsequent pregnancies.

Prodromal Labor vs. Braxton Hicks Contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions are very common as well—almost all pregnant women experience them at some point. But Braxton Hicks contractions generally begin earlier in pregnancy, and while uncomfortable, they don’t feel as similar (as in truly painful) to real contractions as prodromal labor contractions do.

Braxton Hicks Contractions

The characteristics of Braxton Hicks contractions are as follows:

  • Usually, they begin around the fourth month of pregnancy.
  • They feel like a tightening in your abdomen or uterus, rather than the intense squeezing or cramping feeling of prodromal or active labor.
  • They are sometimes painful, but they’re usually more of a strong sensation or discomfort rather than truly painful.
  • They do not usually have a regular pattern or become closer together.
  • Generally, they do not get more intense over time.
  • Often they come about when you are feeling fatigued, dehydrated, or over-extended.
  • Usually lying on your side, drinking water, and resting will decrease your Braxton Hicks contractions.

Prodromal Labor vs. Active Labor

Prodromal labor is similar to real labor because:

  • Prodromal labor contractions may be painful or intense.
  • Prodromal labor contractions may be as close as 5 minutes apart.
  • Prodromal labor contractions may continue on and off regularly for an hour or longer.

Kind of confusing, right?

Prodromal labor is like real labor in many ways, and any woman who has experienced the contractions of prodromal labor will tell you that they are nothing to brush off. They can really hurt and disrupt your life for a few hours at a time.

However, there are some important distinctions between prodromal labor and active labor:

  • Active labor contractions become longer, more intense, and get closer together over time.
  • Active labor contractions are usually accompanied by other signs of labor (leaking fluids, bleeding).
  • Drinking water or showering usually will ease or stop prodromal labor but will have no significant effect on active labor contractions.
  • Active labor contractions are prolonged and increase in power.
  • Eventually, you will find yourself unable to converse or concentrate on much else when you are experiencing active labor contractions.

How to Cope

Just because prodromal labor is not “real” labor doesn’t mean it isn’t disruptive and uncomfortable. Some women say their prodromal labor contractions are as intense as their early active labor contractions end up being. And when it’s been many days or even weeks in a row of prodromal labor symptoms, you can end up feeling exhausted and in need of a break.

Here are some strategies that might ease some of your symptoms:

  • Stay hydrated and well-fed (smaller, more frequent meals may be best at the end of pregnancy).
  • Rest, rest, rest. Put your feet up! Get pampered. You deserve it.
  • If you are up for it, take a walk outside for a change of scenery and to calm your nerves.
  • Take a shower and direct the shower head on your abdomen to soothe it.
  • Watch a movie or listen to music to relax and distract yourself.
  • If you are losing sleep, ask your healthcare provider about safe methods to help you sleep.

When to Contact Your Doctor

It's normal to feel unsure about when to contact your doctor or midwife with your questions but that’s what they are there for. Feel free to call them with even the smallest issues.

For any non-urgent questions, keep a running list to bring to your next appointment. But for anything that feels uncertain or stressful or might be something important, err on the side of caution.

If you are experiencing painful contractions and aren’t sure if they are the “real thing” or not, always give your healthcare provider a call to discuss.

In addition, if your contractions are accompanied by any of the following other symptoms of labor, it’s definitely time to call:

  • You've lost your mucus plug, which looks like a thick, long glob of mucus and may be blood-tinged.
  • You have experienced spotting or light bleeding (any excessive bleeding should be reported to your healthcare provider ASAP).
  • Your water has broken.
  • You are experiencing diarrhea or nausea.
  • Your contractions have become intense enough that it's difficult to have a normal conversation or pay attention to anything else.
  • Your contractions have become more painful, closer together, and longer-lasting over time.
  • You have experienced “lightening,” where your baby drops low into your pelvis, usually felt as downward pressure and an increased need to urinate. You may also notice that you can now breathe more easily and deeply because your lungs have more room. Lightening is experienced more often by first-time moms.

Once you call your healthcare provider to report any or several of these symptoms, they will help you decide what your next move is, whether to “wait it out,” come in for an exam, or get to your hospital or chosen birth location immediately.

A Word From Verywell

Although prodromal labor is not the same as active labor, it can be extremely uncomfortable and impact your day-to-day life. Although most cases of prodromal labor only last a few days, some women experience weeks of it. Aim to rest as much as possible during this time—you'll need your energy for active labor.

Rest assured that if you are not experiencing any of the other tell-tale signs of labor (your healthcare provider can usually tell by just hearing your voice on the phone) and your contractions have not increased in intensity, you're probably not in labor. Also, don't worry if you don't experience prodromal labor—not everyone does.

The silver lining to all this is that many women report that prodromal labor got them well acquainted with what to expect from early active labor contractions. So, you'll be even better prepared when the big day finally arrives.

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Article Sources
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  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to Tell When Labor Begins.

  2. Raines DA, Cooper DB. Braxton Hicks Contractions. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Updated November 11, 2019.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. True Vs. False Labor. Updated January 1, 2018.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health. Labor and birth. Updated June 6, 2018.