Prodromal Labor

Prodromal labor is a type of false labor contraction. It happens in the third trimester of pregnancy and can feel a lot like real labor. Unlike real labor contractions, prodromal labor contractions never get stronger or closer together and don’t lead to cervical dilation or effacement.


What is prodromal labor?

Prodromal labor is a type of false labor contraction that occurs during pregnancy. These contractions are often mistaken for actual labor and can occur in the weeks leading up to your baby's due date. "Prodromal" comes from a Greek word meaning "precursor." Prodromal labor is often the closest thing to active labor you can experience. It’s your body’s way of prepping you for the real thing.

Prodromal labor can be painful, come every five minutes and last 60 seconds each. This is very similar to active labor contractions. However, prodromal labor never advances beyond this point. It doesn’t mean labor is coming or that your cervix has started to dilate (open) or efface (thin).

It can be both frustrating and confusing to experience false labor contractions. Knowing how to spot prodromal labor could help ease your worries.


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What's the difference between prodromal labor and Braxton Hicks contractions?

Prodromal labor is similar to Braxton Hicks contractions in many ways. They’re both types of false or practice contractions that can occur weeks or months before true labor begins. Both contractions are felt in the front of your abdomen. Neither Braxton Hicks nor prodromal labor are strong enough to cause active labor to start and aren’t accompanied by any other signs of labor (like your water breaking or a bloody show).

This chart can help you determine if you are experiencing Braxton Hicks or prodromal labor:

Questions To Ask
Which is more painful?
Braxton Hicks
Contractions are weaker and less painful.
Prodromal Labor
Contractions are usually stronger or more painful.
How long does each contraction last?
Braxton Hicks
Prodromal Labor
Consistently last about 60 seconds each.
How long between each contraction?
Braxton Hicks
Contractions are irregular and never get closer together.
Prodromal Labor
Contractions are more consistent (between five and 10 minutes apart). They never get closer together.
When do they start in pregnancy?
Braxton Hicks
Could start as early as the second trimester.
Prodromal Labor
Usually doesn’t start until the third trimester or when you are close to full term.
Do contractions change when you move?
Braxton Hicks
They go away when you walk or change positions.
Prodromal Labor
Not usually.

Possible Causes

What causes prodromal labor?

No one is entirely sure what causes prodromal labor, but healthcare providers know that false labor contractions can help your uterine muscles and ligaments prepare for actual labor. There isn’t evidence that prodromal labor causes labor to begin or contributes to faster dilation or effacement.

Some possible causes of prodromal labor are:

  • Your baby is moving into position for delivery. This is especially true if your baby is breech.
  • Anxiety or stress.
  • Physical factors like an irregular pelvis or a uterine anomaly.
  • Having three or more past pregnancies.

Prodromal labor is completely normal and doesn’t cause your baby any harm. If you’re unsure if what you’re feeling is true labor, your healthcare provider can help. They may ask for you to time your contractions or describe your pain. Other times they will ask you to come in so they can check your cervix. If there is no sign of dilation, you’re probably feeling false labor.


What are the signs of prodromal labor?

It can be hard to pinpoint prodromal labor because it’s similar to real labor and Braxton Hicks contractions. Signs of prodromal labor include:

  • Tightening or hardening in the front of your abdomen.
  • Pain or cramping that doesn’t intensify as time passes.
  • Contractions that last up to one minute each time.
  • Contractions that occur as soon as five minutes apart, but never get closer than that.

A cervical check is the only way to confirm prodromal labor. If you aren’t dilated or your dilation hasn’t changed since the last check, you’re likely experiencing prodromal labor pains.

What does prodromal labor feel like?

The pain you feel during prodromal labor is like the pain you may feel during early labor. Some describe it as intense pain or tightening in the front of their belly. This pain lasts about a minute and can come as frequently as every five minutes.

How do I know if it's prodromal labor or active labor?

Prodromal labor can feel a lot like active labor. Both contractions are painful and can be as close as five minutes apart. However, instead of gradually getting closer together and even more painful, prodromal labor stops. During active labor, contractions are longer, stronger and closer together. Having a conversation or walking becomes difficult (or impossible) during an active labor contraction.

You’re likely in active labor if your contractions are coming less than five minutes apart, they last for longer than one minute each and this happens for over one hour straight.

Active labor is sometimes accompanied by other signs of labor like your water breaking, losing your mucus plug or having a bloody show.


Care and Treatment

Can prodromal labor lead to real labor?

It leads to actual labor only because it happens before real labor. It doesn’t cause labor to start. It’s your body’s way of gearing up for active labor and delivery.

How long does prodromal labor last?

There is no set time for how long prodromal labor lasts. Labor varies from person to person and from pregnancy to pregnancy. For most people, prodromal labor begins once you are close to full term (37 weeks). One episode of prodromal labor can last up to several days at a time.

How can I feel better during prodromal labor?

Being in a constant state of pre-labor can be tiring and disappointing. Here are some things you can do at home to cope with prodromal labor pains:

  • Drink lots of water.
  • Make sure you are eating enough. Small snacks may help.
  • Watch a movie or TV and listen to music.
  • Take a shower or hot bath.
  • Alternate walking with rest.
  • Try yoga, deep breathing or meditation.

When To Call the Doctor

When should I call my doctor?

Call your healthcare provider if you are unsure if prodromal labor contractions are true labor. False labor can be scary if you don’t know what to expect. Your healthcare provider can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal and not a cause for worry.

Generally, it’s time to go to the hospital when:

  • You have contractions that become stronger at increasingly shorter intervals.
  • You have lower back pain that doesn’t go away.
  • You’re unable to talk or walk during contractions.
  • Your water breaks (you will feel like a trickle or gush of amniotic fluid).
  • You have a bloody show or lose your mucus plug.

It’s important to note that labor is different for everyone. If you are ever unsure, it’s best to be on the safe side and call your healthcare provider.

If your contractions are ever accompanied by bright red blood or vaginal bleeding, call your healthcare provider right away.

Additional Common Questions

Can your water break during prodromal labor?

Not usually. If your water breaks, you’re likely in labor or about to be. However, this isn’t always the case. Premature rupturing of the membranes can be caused by infection, issues with the placenta or other pregnancy complications. It’s always a good idea to call your healthcare provider if your water breaks.

How can I speed up prodromal labor?

You can’t speed up prodromal labor or turn it into real labor. Prodromal labor will usually go away on its own without progressing to active labor. Your baby might not be ready to meet you yet, and that’s OK. The best thing you can do is keep a record of your contractions. This tells you if your contractions are lasting longer or getting closer together.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Prodromal labor contractions can be frustrating when you’re close to meeting your baby. It causes painful contractions that can last several days at a time. Knowing how to cope with prodromal labor can help you stay positive. On the bright side, prodromal labor is helping you prepare for the active labor contractions that lead to your baby’s birth.

Call your healthcare provider if you’re unsure about what kind of contractions you’re feeling. They can help you figure out if what you’re feeling is active labor or have you come to their office for a cervical check.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 09/15/2022.

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