Prodromal Labor

By Katharine Paljug  @kpaljug
March 15, 2017

Prodromal labor can last so long, it can be exhausting and frustrating and may result in unnecessary medical interventions if you go to the hospital too early.

Prodromal labor, which is sometimes incorrectly termed “false labor,” is a type of labor that happens before the onset of full, active labor.

A “prodrome” is an early sign or symptom of a disease or condition. Prodromal labor, then, is one of the signs that real labor is beginning, though it may take hours, days, or even weeks for you to enter the active phase of labor and delivery.

Because prodromal labor can last so long, it can be exhausting and frustrating and may result in unnecessary medical interventions if you go to the hospital too early.


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Prodromal labor symptoms

Prodromal labor is not considered false labor because the contractions you experience are real and do produce a change in your body.

These contractions generally have the same intensity as labor contractions, and they may be very regular in their timing, which can cause confusion for some women who cannot tell if they are in full labor or not. However, they do not generally become closer together than about seven minutes.

These contractions often start and stop, and may begin day or weeks before actual delivery occurs. Some women report experiencing prodromal contractions at the same time every day, while others experience them for most of the day and night.

The primary prodromal labor sign s that your contractions feel like real labor contractions but do not seem to progress to full labor.

Prodromal labor vs. Braxton Hicks

Most women will experience Braxton Hicks contractions, which are genuine false labor, during the second or third trimester of their pregnancy. These contractions are essentially “practice labor,” in which the muscles of the uterus tighten and release in order to prepare for birth.

Though Braxton Hicks contractions are uncomfortable, they are usually irregular and not very intense. They can also be stopped by eating, hydrating, changing position, or bathing.

Prodromal contractions, by contrast, are often very intense and may follow a very consistent pattern. They are not stopped by eating or hydrating, though they may stop on their own at specific times of the day.

The most important difference, though, is that prodromal contractions do cause changes, such as shifting the position of your baby or thinning your cervix in preparation for active labor. Braxton Hicks contractions do not cause any of these changes.


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Defining prodromal labor

Medical professionals are not entirely in agreement about the exact definition of prodromal labor.

Some categorize it as contractions that cause some softening of the cervix, but no actual dilation. Others state that prodromal labor can cause the cervix to soften, efface, and dilate, which helps to shorten the length of active labor.


There is some speculation that prodromal contractions help move the baby into the correct position for delivery, or that it is more likely to occur in women with high levels of stress, but no research has confirmed either of these ideas.

In fact, very little official research has been done on the cause and experience of prodromal labor at all. Neither The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have any statistics available on how many women experience prodromal labor or how long it tends to last. ACOG actually advises avoiding the term entirely, preferring only to categorize labor as either “latent” or “active.”

As a result, there is very little consensus about what exactly prodromal labor feels like or how it helps your body progress through labor and delivery.

If you are unsure whether you’re experiencing real or false labor, you can always check in with your doctor or midwife. But Emily Landry, a childbirth educator and professional doula, has a straightforward recommendation for women experiencing any stage of labor.

“Ignore your labor until you cannot ignore it anymore,” Landry writes. “At some point, it will not [be] possible to ignore your contractions any longer… Because you've been ignoring the early contractions, you've conserved more of your energy for the part of labor where you will need to focus and work.”


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April 07, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN