When you’re pregnant and get contractions, it means the muscles of your uterus are tightening and releasing. The contractions help widen (dilate) your cervix to help your baby journey through the birth canal. All that usually signals that you’re about to go into labor.
But sometimes contractions don’t make your cervix change the way it would if your labor had started for real. Your doctor may describe this as uterine contractions without cervical change. Some people call this “prodromal labor” (prodromal means early signs). Others refer to it as “false labor.” But doctors avoid both terms because they consider them imprecise or misleading.
Prodromal Labor vs. True Labor
Unlike actual labor, contractions without cervical change don’t get you and your baby ready for delivery. Doctors don’t know what causes them. They can happen at different times in your pregnancy. Your contractions may be regular and might remind you of menstrual cramps. They shouldn’t get worse over time and will go away. Lying down or drinking water may help you stay comfortable until the contractions pass.
Braxton-Hicks contractions are another type that don’t change your cervix. They may come on less regularly than prodromal labor. You may have Braxton-Hicks contractions in the evening or after you’ve moved a lot. You might get one or two contractions an hour. They are more distinct and often may feel like tightening in one part of your womb. But you might not feel anything. Shifting your body or walking can help end the contractions.
Real labor, by contrast, usually happens in three stages. It starts with regular contractions. They can come every 5-15 minutes and last 60-90 seconds in the beginning. In the first stage of labor, your cervix opens and thins to let your baby move into the birth canal. A pink or bloody discharge may appear as this happens. This could be the mucus plug at the end of your cervix releasing. If you see heavy bleeding or your water breaks, call your doctor right away.
The first stage can last for 12-19 hours or less. You should give your doctor updates and they will tell you what to do next.
Over time, your contractions grow stronger, last longer, and happen more often as you move into the second stage of labor. You might feel cramps in your legs and lower back pressure.
How to Tell if You’re Really in Labor
Cervical change is the key sign that you’re in labor. But it can be hard for you to tell. Keeping track of your contractions and what they feel like can help you distinguish when your baby is ready to be born or if it’s a false alarm.
Signs of contractions without cervical change include if they:
- Don’t have a pattern
- Get better when you rest, change positions, or drink water
- Don’t get stronger
- Start strong and then weaken
- Don’t become more frequent
You may be in true labor and should call your doctor or go to the hospital if:
- Your contractions last longer, become more painful, come every 5 minutes or less, and happen for more than an hour
- Your belly, pelvis, and lower back hurt but changing positions doesn’t help
- Your water breaks. This could be a small or large amount of liquid.
- Pink, red, or brown discharge appears
- You have a lot of vaginal bleeding
- You have consistent, painful contractions before your 37th week. This could be preterm labor
If you still aren’t sure if you’re in labor, call your doctor. They may be able to give you pain medication and help you relax if you are worried.