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How do I know if I'm in early labor? And what is prodromal labor?

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Asian mother holds her belly and looks down as if she's wondering am I in labor as she has a contraction that might be Braxton hicks contractions or prodromal labor or early labor how do you know when you're in labor

Hey Mama Bears! I’m Jaimie Zaki and I’m a Nurse, Certified Doula, and International Board Certified Lactation consultant here to answer your questions on everything pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. Today I’m going to try to answer the age old question, “How do i know if I’m in labor?” The unpopular but honest answer is, “you’ll just know”. But when you’re feeling unsure of what to expect, that answer doesn’t help very much. So let’s take a few minutes to learn a little about contractions, pre-labor/prodromal labor, and early labor…

Okay, so by this point in your pregnancy you might have experienced what we refer to as Braxton Hicks contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions tend to feel like a tightening of the uterus that is concentrated to the belly. Typically, Braxton hicks will increase if you’re moving around a lot or dehydrated. Typically, if you change positions, rest, and drink some water, they’ll dissipate within a few minutes. Something else of note is that braxton hicks can be frequent but are usually not intense, typically do not last longer than 30-45 seconds, and do not come at a timeable pattern. 

What I want to talk to you about to day is prodromal labor--- Prodromal labor is an extended “early labor” like experience.  Many people refer to this as “false labor”. Prodromal labor is an absolute pain. It’s annoying. It can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Personal experience, with two of my pregnancies I had prodromal labor for 4 weeks. Four weeks of contractions that were around 5 minutes apart for hours on end, and very intense. They felt “real” in the sense i would feel them wrap around the lower back and even down my legs sometimes. Sometimes they would bring me to my knees. To be truthful, there were times I found prodromal labor to be more grueling than “real labor”. So how did I know not to run to the hospital each time? For starters, the contractions, though often intense, rarely lasted longer than 45 seconds. 

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Occasionally I’d have one last a full minute, but they were sporadic. Also, the intensity was sporadic. “REAL” labor contractions grow longer, more intense, and closer together. For me, prodromal labor was varied lengths of contractions, 5-10 minutes apart, and varied in intensity… they didn’t gradually get harder, it would be like a train hit me then a few “easy” ones, then an intense one a few hours later. Walking would typically make them more intense, but eventually, they would always fizzle out… Usually if I was really unsure, a warm epsom salt bath would do the trick… they’d fizzle out and I could rest. When “Real” early labor started, I knew because the contractions were gradually lasting longer, and STAYING longer, and gradually becoming more intense. This also sounds weird, but there was just a different emotional feeling to them. I was able to feel a hormone shift inside myself and knew something was different. So if you’re experiencing contractions and unsure if it’s labor, what should you do? Stay rested, stay well nourished, well hydrated, and be patient. If you are full term, planning a low intervention birth, wondering “am I in labor” means that if ANYTHING you might be in early labor. And if you are, that’s a time to rest, nourish your body, and distract yourself. Early labor can be long, and typically you won't want to arrive to your birth place until you’re in active labor. Once you’re in active labor, you won't be wondering if you’re in labor anymore… it will usually be very apparent.

If you have any tips for how to relax and distract yourself in early labor, go ahead and drop some in the comments!


Jaimie Zaki is an LPN, Certified Doula, IBCLC, birth photographer, military wife, and mom who has experienced cesarean birth, hospital VBAC with an epidural, and an unmedicated home birth VBAC. Jaimie is dedicated to helping women like you birth and breastfeed with confidence! Make sure to check out Little Bear Birth Services on Facebook & Instagram and subscribe to LittleBearBirth on youtube!

Laboring pregnant woman breathes through contraction while sitting on labor ball text overlay says Braxton hicks, false labor, and early labor faq, how to know you're in labor pregnancy tips from a birth doula

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