Prodromal Labor: All You Need to Know

Prodromal Labor: All You Need to Know

Had contractions for hours then stopped? Is this baby making an appearance, or what? Turns out, it could be prodromal labor.
Experiencing labor pains before your due date can be an exciting — and scary — time.

You might have experienced Braxton Hicks contractions earlier in pregnancy, but now you’re feeling something different.

If you’re wondering why you’re experiencing strong contractions but not dilating? Prodromal labor could be to blame.

Don’t panic, mama. Here’s everything you need to know about this painful, sometimes frustrating, but totally normal part of late pregnancy. We’ve got you!

In this article: 📝

  • What is prodromal labor?
  • Causes of prodromal labor
  • How can you tell the difference between prodromal labor and real labor?
  • How long will prodromal labor last?
  • What does prodromal labor feel like?
  • How to progress prodromal labor
  • Can prodromal labor lead to real labor?

What is prodromal labor?

First up, how do you define “prodromal”? Well, the prodromal meaning comes from the Greek word meaning “precursor,” and that’s what this is: a precursor to real labor.

Prodromal labor is the onset of contractions that are likely to be intense, and painful, but not actually progress into active labor.

Prodromal labor contractions are regular, often occurring every 5-10 minutes and lasting up to a minute each.

But instead of intensifying and getting closer together, as they would in real labor, prodromal labor starts and stops spontaneously.

Prodromal labor vs Braxton Hicks contractions

Unlike Braxton Hicks contractions (mild tightenings that you may feel from about 4 months pregnant), prodromal labor contractions can’t usually be alleviated by rest or a change in position.

Although prodromal labor contractions may cause your cervix to dilate very slightly, it won’t dilate or efface to the extent where you would lose your mucus plug, like in real labor.

If you do notice a large glob of mucus in your underwear, bleeding, or wetness like your waters have broken, it’s not a practice run, mama! It’s time to check in with your midwife or doctor!

Causes of prodromal labor

Although there is no one specific cause, there can be several reasons for prodromal labor, including:

  • Your baby is breech: Prodromal labor contractions can be your body’s way of trying to turn your baby from breech into the head-down position necessary for a vaginal birth. Hard work for a good cause!
  • Anxiety: Excessive stress about pregnancy, birth, parenthood, or other matters can increase the likelihood of prodromal labor.
  • Physical factors: Uterine changes due to previous pregnancies, other uterine abnormalities, or an uneven pelvis can contribute to prodromal labor.

Whatever the cause, the prodromal stage of labor, although not experienced by every mama-to-be, is normal and nothing to be afraid of.

How can you tell the difference between prodromal labor and real labor?

There are a few tell-tale signs to tell it’s prodromal labor vs early labor:

  • Prodromal labor contractions come and go with a pattern, but ‘real’ contractions keep going until baby arrives, often with no regular pattern.
  • Prodromal labor contractions don’t get closer together, whereas ‘real’ contractions do ‒ again, they get closer together until it’s time for baby to make an appearance.
  • Prodromal labor stops, but ‘real’ labor keeps going until baby is born.

Why am I contracting but not dilating?

There are a couple of reasons why you could be contracting but not dilating.

If you’re in the early phases of labor, it can take a while for your cervix to start dilating ‒ or, you could be a little dilated, but not realize how much.

Sometimes, you could have a ‘failure to progress’ (or FTP) labor ‒ if this is the case, you’re not doing anything ‘wrong’, sometimes your cervix doesn’t dilate.

If that’s the case, your doctor will know what best next steps to take.

Another reason you could be contracting but not dilating could be the prodromal phase of labor ‒ sort of like a taster before the real thing.

Does prodromal labor cause dilation?

Technically, prodromal labor can encourage some dilation, but not enough to bring baby into the world.

Usually, most cases of prodromal labor don’t result in any dilation, but a centimeter of dilation has been known to occur.

How long will prodromal labor last?

Prodromal labor usually happens after week 37 of pregnancy, so even if you aren’t in real labor just yet, odds are you haven’t got that much longer to wait.

The average prodromal phase of labor episode lasts between 24-72 hours.

They can also last for a couple of hours at a time but occur every day or at regular intervals.

Can prodromal labor last for weeks?

But can prodromal labor last for weeks? Erm, yes, it can.

It can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting to go through prodromal labor for an extended period, and we’re sorry if you’re going through this right now.

Perfect excuse for some ice cream and Hallmark movies, right?

If, at any stage, you are worried about your or your baby’s health, your birthing team is there to answer your questions.

Don’t worry about wasting anyone’s time; supporting you is what they’re there for.

What does prodromal labor feel like?

There are no two ways about it: prodromal labor can be super painful!

There is nothing false about the prodromal stage of labor, as your uterus contracts just like in real labor.

However, the pain from prodromal labor is often only in the front of your belly, while for many mamas, real labor contractions can also cause pain in their lower back.

Your cervix may be slightly dilated, but because it’s not dilating to the extent it will in the early stages of real labor, you shouldn’t experience a real take-your-breath-away kind of pain, or any urge to push.

With each prodromal labor contraction, you’ll likely feel an intense tightening across your abdomen that can last up to a minute, and it can be hard to go about your daily activities as if nothing is happening.

Deep breaths, mama, you got this.

How to progress prodromal labor

If you’re battling prodromal labor symptoms, we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s nothing you can do to turn prodromal labor into real labor.

But there are a few things you can do to ease your prodromal labor ‒ at 36 weeks, 37 weeks… all the way up to 40 weeks and beyond.

Everyone’s pain threshold is different, so there are varying techniques you can try to alleviate the discomfort of prodromal labor contractions. We suggest:

  • Have a warm shower, with the water directed onto your abdomen.
  • Bounce on a birth ball.
  • Have a gentle walk, avoiding steep hills or tall stairs.
  • Stay energized. If your prodromal labor continues for days, it may be easier to eat smaller meals more frequently.
  • Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Distract yourself with a good movie or Netflix binge.

Can you sleep through prodromal labor?

Yes, you can sleep through prodromal labor, although, depending on the level of pain, it can be tricky.

We know it’s not what you want to hear, particularly if you’re experiencing prodromal labor at night, so what can you do to get some shut-eye during your prodromal labor contractions?

Some of our mamas on Peanut have suggested calming activities, like meditation, deep breathing, and going for a walk.

Can prodromal labor lead to real labor?

Prodromal labor doesn’t necessarily mean your baby is ready to be born.

And if your prodromal labor goes away without progressing to real labor, it doesn’t mean you’ll need an induction or a c-section.

Prodromal labor is just your body’s way of warming up for the real thing.

The irregularity and spontaneous stop-start pattern of prodromal pain is what sets it apart from real labor.

But even if it’s not your first pregnancy, it can be really hard to tell whether you’re in prodromal labor or the early stages of real labor.

There’s nothing you can physically do to turn prodromal labor into real labor.

Keeping an eye on your prodromal labor contraction timings and concentrating on whether they’re getting more painful, closer together, or easing off, gives you a good indication as to whether you might be progressing into real labor.

This information can help your birth team give you advice over the phone if you decide to check in with them.

Your doctor or midwife may suggest visiting them to get checked over.

Although uncomfortable, prodromal labor is a great time to put into practice some of your birth techniques.

If you can, ask your birth partner to support you through this time to prepare you both for the big day.

And as ever, mama, you are doing a great job!

Does prodromal labor shorten active labor?

Unfortunately not ‒ experiencing prodromal labor doesn’t necessarily mean your real labor will be shorter.

And if you’re wondering how to speed up prodromal labor, we’re sorry to say that’s not possible, either.

You’ve just got to ride this one out. You’ve got this, mama.

If you want to read more real-life prodromal labor stories or share your prodromal labor experiences, you’re always welcome to join our community of mamas and mamas-to-be on Peanut.

💡 More from The 411:
Why Can’t You Eat During Labor?
What is Precipitous Labor?
How to Induce Labor (Yourself)
Preparing for Childbirth: Helpful Things to Know
What To Expect from Induction of Labor
What are the Ways to Induce Labor?
18 Labor Tips For Moms
How to Prepare for a Baby: 11 Tips
Signs That Labor is 24–48 Hours Away
Safe Ways to Go into Labor Tonight
Your Labor and Delivery Playlist
Late Decelerations: All You Need to Know About
Evening Primrose Oil for Labor: What’s the Story?

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