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Prodromal Labor: Causes, Symptoms, & Comparisons

Having a baby is wonderful, but it comes with a whole lot of things to learn.

Having a baby is an amazing experience, but as one of the biggest life changes most people ever go through, it comes with a wealth of new things to learn.

If you're feeling a little scared about giving birth and are looking for more information or just want to know more about what to expect, we're here with the facts. If you've still got more questions about this exciting time in your life, why not take a look at our articles on what to do if you're scared of giving birth, or signs that labor is 24-48 hours away?

Please remember that you should always speak to a medical professional if you are experiencing contractions and are worried or think you need assistance earlier than your birth plan suggests. If you're concerned about any symptoms you're having, always contact your doctor.

What Is Prodromal Labor?

Prodromal labor, also known as pre-labor or false labor, is a common experience in pregnancy. Although it can be painful and anxiety-provoking if you aren't expecting it, most medical professionals agree that it's usually benign.

Pre-labor happens when the uterus contracts but the cervix does not change. It's most common in the last few weeks of pregnancy, although some women do experience it earlier. Prodromal labor contractions do not move the baby towards birth. Instead, they come and go sporadically, often at similar times each day. The average length of prodromal labor is 24-72 hours, although as with all things pregnancy-related, everyone's body works a little differently.

Prodromal labor may sometimes be called 'false' labor to contrast it with 'real' labor when the baby is born, but many medical professionals aren't keen on the term. That's because women really are having contractions when they're in prodromal labor. It's a real experience that's often painful and can leave expectant moms worried about their health and their baby's health. The good news is, prodromal labor is generally nothing to worry about, although as always, if you have concerns, contact your healthcare provider. Your health is always worth the extra reassurance.

Although it can be scary and frustrating if you don't understand what's happening, prodromal labor doesn't usually mean there are any complications or risks to your health or the baby's health. This early phase of labor is just your body doing some warm-up stretching and letting you know that things may be moving soon.

Symptoms Of Prodromal Labor

The most obvious symptom of prodromal labor is contractions. Prodromal labor contractions usually have a regular pattern and are painful, although not as intense as contractions of the full birthing process. Unlike actual labor contractions, however, pre-labor contractions don't get more intense or closer together as time goes on. It can be helpful at this stage to time your contractions and write down how far apart they are. Knowing this will help you and your doctor work out whether you're in prodromal labor or on your way to giving birth.

One of the main ways to tell the difference between prodromal and real labor is to see if there have been any changes to the cervix. Prodromal labor often looks a lot like real labor, and it can be hard even for your doctor to tell them apart. This means they may need to perform a pelvic exam to see if your cervix is dilated. If you're experiencing prodromal labor symptoms, your cervix won't be dilated, and your waters won't break.

Prodromal labor may be normal, but that doesn't mean it isn't painful. To ease your symptoms, make sure to stay hydrated. Moving around and remaining in an upright position are also commonly recommended ways to manage pre-labor contractions. Many experts recommend gentle walking too, although as always, take your doctor's advice about how much activity is safe for you to do while you're pregnant.

Dehydration can be a cause of prodromal labor, so make sure to drink plenty of water.

Pre-labor can be a great opportunity to practice any breathing techniques you've been taught in prenatal classes. Experiencing mild contractions can make the process seem more familiar when you come to give birth, as well as giving you the chance to put your coping and pain-management strategies into practice before the real thing.

Prodromal Labor VS Braxton Hicks

You may have come across another type of non-birthing contraction called Braxton-Hicks as you've been reading up on pregnancy. While prodromal labor and Braxton-Hicks contractions can seem similar at first, they have some big differences.

Women who experience prodromal labor report painful contractions similar to, but milder than, the contractions of active labor. Those who have Braxton-Hicks contractions tend to describe them as uncomfortable rather than painful. Braxton-Hicks contractions also tend to be experienced earlier on in the pregnancy, around the four-month mark, while prodromal labor usually happens right at the end. Women often experience Braxton-Hicks when they're dehydrated or have been very active or on their feet a lot, so drinking water or changing positions should help ease them.

What Causes Prodromal Labor?

The short answer is, no-one really knows. Experts have suggested several possible causes. Some think that it's your body's way of trying to move the baby into the birthing position. (Interestingly,  prodromal labor happens more often when the baby is breech.) Others think that the fact it's more common among first-time moms means that it's the body practicing for the next, active phase of labor.

Many women report more prodromal labor at night. It's thought that this is because you produce more oxytocin, the hormone responsible for uterine contractions, during the hours of darkness. If a mother has been feeling anxious, either about the pregnancy itself or more generally, this can also trigger prodromal labor. Whatever the cause, it doesn't nessecarily mean that there are any new health issues for you or your baby.

Many pregnant women experience prodromal labor more frequently at night.

Prodromal Labor To Active Labor

Many expectant moms want to know how to progress prodromal labor into active labor. However, there's no real way to 'move' prodromal labor forward. Instead, it's more of a warm-up act.

If you aren't sure whether your contractions are prodromal or real labor, time them. Prodromal labor contractions will usually keep a regular pattern, while active labor contractions will increase in frequency and intensity. Active labor contractions are also more painful, they're commonly described as 'taking your breath away', while prodromal contractions are less powerful (although they still hurt).

Walking around, changing positions, taking a warm shower, or drinking water will usually help ease prodromal labor contractions. Active labor, however, doesn't tend to stop for anything once it starts. It's also usually accompanied by bleeding or other discharge. You may also feel the baby change position and drop into the pelvis ready for birth in active labor, which will not happen in the prodromal phase.

If you think you may be moving towards active labor, or just can't quite tell, contact your healthcare provider straight away. They'll be able to recommend the best course of action for you and your baby. We know it can feel embarrassing to contact your doctor only to find that you're not in real labor just yet, but it's better to be sure, and it's what they're there for.

If you found this article helpful, then why not take a look at how to deal with stomach bugs during pregnancy or dealing with painful sex during pregnancy?

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Kidadl Team

The Kidadl Team is made up of people from different walks of life, from different families and backgrounds, each with unique experiences and nuggets of wisdom to share with you. From lino cutting to surfing to children’s mental health, their hobbies and interests range far and wide. They are passionate about turning your everyday moments into memories and bringing you inspiring ideas to have fun with your family.

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