If you don’t have time to read this entire article, I can sum it up in three words: prodromal labor sucks.
I had contractions for hours then stopped. Imagine irregular painful contractions that get more confusing with each one.
I remember thinking, are these Braxton Hicks? Is this real labor?
Lucky for me, I have a midwife friend who I texted and she gave me the answer I was looking for – prodromal labor.
Unfortunately there’s a lot of confusion surrounding prodromal labor out there.
Today I’m going to give it to you straight: what is prodromal labor, what’s it like, why it’s happening, and what does it mean. I want to provide you with the reference I was looking for what I was suffering through it.
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In This Guide:
The Prodromal Labor Definition
So what IS prodromal labor?
Prodromal labor lies somewhere between Braxton Hicks and “real” labor. What makes it tricky is that signs of both Braxton Hicks and active labor can be present during prodromal labor.
Some people refer to prodromal labor as “false labor” – but that’s really an incorrect statement.
I think a better descriptor for prodromal labor is pre-labor. While Braxton Hicks are sometimes called “practice” contractions, prodromal labor is your body starting to get ready and progress towards “real” labor. This pre-labor occurs intermittently and can start hours to weeks before active labor finally begins.
Prodromal labor is pretty common, most often to women who are at least 37 weeks pregnant.
I had to put “real” labor in quotes earlier because prodromal labor has plenty of real feels. The contraction pain is definitely real.
Distinguishing Prodromal Labor vs Early Labor
While you may be experiencing painful (and sometimes even regular!) contractions during prodromal labor, there are some key points that make it different from early labor.
Prodromal labor contractions are irregular, but this can mean different things for different women. It’s possible moms will have irregular contraction lengths and breaks. Another possibility is that labor may be regular for a few hours, and then disappear completely in an irregular fashion.
This irregularity is the key. Because while prodromal labor contractions may be productive (meaning they are doing something inside your uterus), the irregularity keeps labor from truly progressing.
Unlike real labor, contractions from prodromal labor do not generally last more than a minute and occur greater than five minutes apart.
Prodromal labor, like real labor, can increase in severity with time. Once again, look for the irregularity to differentiate the two.
Real labor is consistent. Regular, consistent contractions that are getting longer and closer together without a break.
Inside your body, there’s also a difference between prodromal labor vs early labor. The contractions from prodromal labor are working solely on the uterine area. On the other hand, real labor contractions can also work to dilate and efface the cervix.
See how this can get confusing and difficult to distinguish? Luckily there is one clear sign that real labor has begun – your water breaking.
Unfortunately, that isn’t an indicator for everyone because many women begin labor without their water breaking. But if you do experience your water breaking, you know real labor is imminent.
If you have any concerns or questions about differentiating prodromal labor vs early labor, never ever hesitate to contact your OB-GYN or midwife. That’s what they’re there for. Even experienced mothers have difficulty knowing when labor has truly begun.
Is Prodromal Labor Painful?
This is the biggest factor that differs between prodromal labor vs Braxton Hicks.
Remember that Braxton Hicks contractions are generally referred to as practice contractions. You’ll feel a tightening, and sometimes uncomfortable, sensation that prepares your body for labor.
Unlike prodromal labor, Braxton Hicks contractions are not usually regular, intense, or painful. They do not grow in intensity or last for an extended amount of time.
Braxton Hicks contractions can also be eased through resting and sipping on a glass of water. No such luck for prodromal labor contractions.
The other key differentiating factor between prodromal labor vs Braxton Hicks is what it’s doing inside your body. Prodromal labor contractions are working to move the baby and prepare your uterus for labor. Braxton Hicks aren’t considered to be productive.
Hey, on the positive side that means the pain that comes from prodromal labor contractions isn’t for nothing!
What Does Prodromal Labor Feel Like?
Let’s talk about some of the common characteristics of prodromal labor.
- Irregular painful contractions, or
- Regular painful contractions, that occur on and off
- Contractions generally lasting less than 1 minute and more than 5 minutes apart
- Contractions that begin and end at the same time each day
- Intermittently contractions for hours, days, or even weeks(!) before real labor
- Contractions may either stay consistent or grow in intensity
For most moms, prodromal labor lasts between 24-72 hours. Unfortunately for others, it can last for weeks.
Prodromal labor is more common in first-time moms. When it does occur in veteran moms, it’s often at night and tends to subside toward the morning. Which is just perfect when you’re trying to enjoy your last few nights of uninterrupted sleep before baby comes (*sigh*).
One thing most articles don’t talk about is what it emotionally feels like to be in prodromal labor. It’s exhausting, confusing, and frustrating.
Moms experiencing prodromal labor want so bad to be in real labor. They want the pain and misery to end. They want to meet their baby. And every time the contractions subside, it feels like a slap in the face. I know because I’ve been there.
Once again, I cannot reiterate enough the importance of communication with your midwife or OB-GYN. If there is any doubt, give them a call.
Why Do Some Women Have Prodromal Labor?
If you’re experiencing prodromal labor, you may be thinking – why me??
Unfortunately, the medical community isn’t 100% sure why some women experience prodromal labor.
We do know it’s common and occurs more frequently with first-time moms. However it can differ between a mother’s pregnancies. You might experience it with your first, but not the second, and then again with the third.
Here are some theories on what causes prodromal labor (or at least makes it more likely to occur):
- Women with an active lifestyle who spend more time on their feet
- Babies in a breech position
- Physically uneven or abnormal pelvis and/or uterus
- Moms who are experiencing anxiety or stress over the pregnancy and/or labor
Remember that prodromal labor isn’t a cause for alarm. It doesn’t mean your baby is in distress or your body is having problems.
Once again, if you have any concerns never hesitate to contact your OB-GYN or midwife.
Can Prodromal Labor Turn into Real Labor?
So do all these contractions from prodromal labor mean the big day is almost here?
In most cases, prodromal labor lasts between 24-72 hours before real labor begins. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
The fact of the matter is that birth can be very unpredictable. Prodromal labor can happen at any time during your last month of pregnancy. So the presence of contractions can mean you have days or weeks to go.
Enough doom and gloom, let’s look on the bright side. All those painful contractions are not necessarily for nothing.
There is evidence that women who experience prodromal labor will have shorter active labors.
It’s not a guarantee, but the theory is that these pre-labor contractions are prepping your body for the real thing to make it easier once real labor starts.
What Should I Do During Prodromal Labor?
If you are suffering through these irregular painful contractions, you might be wondering if anything can be done.
Here are a few coping techniques you can try:
- Hop in a warm shower, in particular let the water hit and run down your back
- Drink a cool beverage
- Listen to music and meditate
- Distract yourself by making sure your hospital bag is ready
- Lie down with a pillow between your knees and close your eyes
- Eat! (Super important because the hospital won’t let you eat once you’re admitted)
- Practice your breathing techniques for labor
If you are close to your due date, try these steps to encourage your progression into active labor:
- Power walk
- Bounce on a birthing ball while watching TV
- Dance (I’m personally a big fan of Just Dance)
If you are questioning if real labor has begun, call your OB-GYN or midwife! They can troubleshoot what you’re experiencing or may ask you to come in for a cervix check.