Are prodromal labor contractions necessarily early signs of labor or false alarms? It can be hard to tell. Here's everything you need to know about the pesky cramps.
It's the end of your pregnancy. You're big, you're tired, and you are beyond ready to meet the tiny person who has been making their home in your body for the better part of a year. There's just one thing to do: wait for labor contractions to start. With every twinge in your belly or ache in your back, you're wondering, "Is that a contraction?" Unfortunately, many people will have quite a few labor "scares" before the active stage actually begins. Prodromal labor, sometimes called "false labor," is a common occurrence for women in the last few weeks of pregnancy. Here's the lowdown on what it is, why it happens, and what you can do to get through it.
A contraction by any other name...
Prodromal labor has a lot of names: pre-labor, false labor, latent labor. It's basically defined as contractions and/or other labor signs that begin much in the way that traditional labor does, but that do not result in the birth of your baby. You may have heard of women heading to the hospital, breathing through strong contractions the whole way there, just to be told in triage that what they're feeling isn't "real" labor and that they should go home and wait. Frustrating, right? This kind of labor can present in different ways for different people, so it's often hard to pin down.
How do you know if it's prodromal labor or the real thing?
Generally, prodromal labor consists of contractions that feel and may progress significantly different from those intermittent Braxton Hicks. Kristi Angevine, M.D., an OB/GYN in Chattanooga, Tenn., explains that prodromal labor usually presents as "contractions that range from mild to strong and may be regular or irregular in their frequency and duration. These contractions might come and go, but they're usually less than every 5 minutes and do not become more frequent. There can be pelvic/back pressure, abdominal tightening, vaginal discharge and scant spotting, but no heavy bleeding." The main thing about prodromal labor to remember is that it consists of contractions that are not progressing into more active labor or dilating your cervix.
What causes prodromal labor?
There's no one answer to that question, unfortunately; sometimes it can be a long day, stress, or lots of physical activity, but most often it's just your body actually getting ready to go into labor for real. Often, women will have instances of contractions for several days or weeks before actual labor kicks in. Some birth professionals think that extended prodromal labor is related to the baby's position in the uterus, but there's no consensus for that being a factor.
Coping with prodromal labor
Prodromal labor can be really exhausting to deal with, both emotionally and physically. It's certainly no picnic to experience hours or days of painful contractions just to have them abruptly stop or to be told by your provider that you're not in "real" labor. Luckily, there are a few different ways of dealing with this kind of labor—and most all of them are related to relaxation. Stephanie Tillman, CNM, a certified nurse-midwife in Chicago who blogs at Feminist Midwife, explains, "For many, a medical intervention such as therapeutic rest—taking a medicine to allow sleep for a few hours—can be enough to rest the body and relax the mind to start a new day without frustration." (Speak to your doctor about options.) "For others," Tillman says, "hydration and hydrotherapy—baths, showers—may alleviate symptoms." If you have prodromal labor, anything that can help you rest and relax is great, like massage, acupuncture, yoga, position changes, or meditation. You and your partner can practice the breathing or visualizations you learned in your childbirth classes, as well. Distraction, such as cleaning, organizing, cooking, shopping, or otherwise getting ready for baby's arrival, can also be a great tool. Tillman adds that sometimes being active can help, too: "Activity such as walking or stairs may ultimately increase the strength and frequency of contractions enough to start the process of cervical change." Swimming, dancing or other kinds of movement you enjoy are good for both movement and distraction.
If you experience prodromal labor, don't get discouraged: it's normal—and if you're worried, speak to your OB/GYN. While it may not mean that you're going to meet your baby in the next few hours (or even days) experiencing prodromal labor does mean that your body is getting ready for real labor, prepping for the process that's going to bring your baby to you. That's ultimately a good thing.