What Is Prodromal Labor?

How to cope with ongoing pseudo contractions

Pregnant woman uncomfortable

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There is almost nothing more aggravating than dealing with contractions that seem go nowhere, especially if this pattern drags out for day or weeks. But such is the reality of prodromal labor, and any mom who has been there will tell you that it’s one of the most annoying and anxiety-producing aspects of pregnancy that a mom-to-be might experience.

The good news is that prodromal labor is quite common, nothing to stress too much about (more on that in a second) and usually passes in due time … although you usually have to wait until active labor and birth for that to happen.

What Is the Definition of Prodromal Labor?

Although prodromal labor isn’t a term used in most medical literature, many doctors and midwives use it to describe contractions that happen before active labor that are stronger and more consistent than Braxton Hicks contractions, but not significant enough to bring on actual labor.

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 (contractions that are painful and come on in somewhat predictable and prolonged intervals), you’re not there yet, and prodromal labor is not considered labor.

In fact, prodromal labor can come and go for many weeks or even months before you actually give birth — part of why it is such an irritating experience for so many of us. The other aspect of prodromal labor that bothers many of us to no end is that it can be downright confusing, especially because prodromal labor shares so many aspects and symptoms of real labor.

How Can I Tell If I’m in Prodromal Labor?

Many moms desperately want to know if they are in prodromal labor or real labor, and how they can tell. In some cases, especially if this is your first instance of prodromal labor, the best way to tell is to call or go to your healthcare provider and discuss your symptoms. Depending on their judgement, your healthcare provider might perform an exam to see if your cervix has dilated or not, and whether your body is preparing for birth in any other significant ways.

Here’s how you know if what you are experiencing is possibly prodromal 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).
  • 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.

Most women will experience prodromal labor during the very end of their pregnancies, and many believe that prodromal labor is actually the body’s way of preparing itself for your upcoming birth (so it’s not all for nothing!).

Some unlucky women experience prodromal labor at the end of their second trimester or beginning of their third trimester — and experience it on and off for many weeks. Often a mom who has experienced prodromal labor with one pregnancy will experience it with another, but there is no rule that this has to happen. Some moms experience it with just one pregnancy and that’s it.

Prodromal Labor vs. Braxton Hicks Contractions

Many of us are confused about the difference between prodromal labor and Braxton Hicks contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions are very common — almost all pregnant women experience them at some point. But Braxton Hicks contractions generally begin happening earlier in pregnancy, and while uncomfortable, they don’t feel as similar to real contractions as prodromal labor contractions do.

Braxton Hicks Contractions

  • Usually begin in about the fourth month of pregnancy
  • Feel like a tightening in your abdomen or uterus
  • Are sometimes painful, but they’re usually more just a strong sensation
  • Do not usually have a regular pattern, or become closer together
  • Generally do not get more intense over time
  • Often 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 contraction may continue 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.

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).
  • 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 with Prodromal Labor

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 in a row — or weeks! — of prodromal labor, you can end up feeling exhausted and in dire need of a break.

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

Make sure you 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 scene 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 if there is any safe medication to take to help you sleep.

When Do I Need to Contact My Healthcare Provider?

Some mothers feel unsure about whether they should bother their doctor or midwife with endless questions. But that’s what they are there for, and you should feel free to call them with even the smallest questions.

Even if this isn’t your first time experiencing prodromal labor, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so if you are experiencing painful contractions and aren’t sure if they are the “real thing” or not yet, give your healthcare provider a call to discuss.

In addition, if your contractions are accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it’s definitely time to call, as these may be signs that labor is on its way:

You have experienced “lightening,” where your baby drops low into your pelvis, usually felt as downward pressure and an increased need to pee. You may also notice that you can now breathe more easily because your lungs have more room to fill. Lightening is usually experienced more often by first-time moms.

  • You have 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 you have trouble carrying on a normal conversation or concentrating on much else.
  • Your contractions have become more painful, closer together, and longer-lasting over time.

Once you call your healthcare provider reporting 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 place of birth immediately.

A Word from Verywell

Although prodromal labor is not the same active labor, it can be extremely uncomfortable, painful, and really change the dynamic of your day-to-day life. Although most cases of prodromal labor only last a few days, some women experience weeks on end of it, and it can be absolutely exhausting. It’s important to rest as much as possible during this time because you need your energy for when the real deal takes place.

Many women who experience prodromal labor are naturally troubled about what is happening, especially if their due date is weeks away and they are concerned about premature birth. Again, this is all the more reason to stay in touch with your doctor or midwife. But rest assured that if you are not experiencing any of the other tell-tale signs of labor and your contractions have not increased in intensity and are not less than five minutes apart, you are probably going to be just fine.

The silver lining to all this is that many women report that prodromal labor got them well acquainted with how to get through active labor contractions — because truly if you’ve dealt with days or weeks of prodromal labor, you can get through anything.

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Article Sources

  • How to tell when labor begins. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website. Updated May 2011. 

  • True vs. false labor. Cleveland Clinic website. Updated January 2018.

  • Variations of labor. Sutter Health website. Updated 2008.