From the moment you get the big news you are pregnant, you spend time preparing yourself mentally and physically for “labor day.” While this big event will come in good time, be aware there may be a few false starts before the actual day arrives.
Known as false labor, the symptoms of this “false labor” can feel a lot like the real thing and send you hurrying to the hospital. By knowing the difference, you can determine when it’s time to grab your labor bag for real and when to wait until your symptoms resolve. And if you’re unsure, it’s always a good idea to call your doctor or midwife.
Physicians typically describe labor as a series of steps. First, you experience mild contractions, typically in your pelvis and lower back. Your membranes may also rupture (also known as your water breaking). Your contractions increase in intensity and duration, lasting longer and feeling stronger as you progress into more active labor. Your cervix starts to dilate and thin out, and your baby moves lower in the pelvis, all in preparation for delivery.
When you experience false labor, the symptoms may be similar, but they often have a few key differences.. Here are some signs of false labor:
- Contractions that feel as if your muscles are tightening, but are only uncomfortable to mildly painful. Most false labor contractions do not cause severe pain (although exceptions do exist). If you need a guide, see if you can still talk and walk through them. If you can, this may not yet be true labor.
- Contractions that do not occur at regular intervals and do not occur progressively closer together. That is, you may have a few close together, then they space out for a while or stop completely.
- The contractions subside with position changes or movement, such as walking or getting in the bathtub.
- Contractions that are not rhythmic in nature. Typically, true contractions will occur in a wave-like motion that starts in your back.
When in doubt, always call your healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms to ensure you should not seek medical attention, since some women don’t feel much even when they are in active labor (though this is the exception, not the rule!). This is especially true if your contractions are accompanied by bright red vaginal bleeding, any leakage of amniotic fluid, or if you feel your baby moving less than six times an hour, or if you are preterm.
Reviewed by Dr. Jen Lincoln, August 2019
- False labor contractions can occur as early as your second trimester. They can mimic true labor contractions, but are typically milder in intensity and irregular in duration.
- False labor contractions typically resolve with movement, such as re-positioning or walking.
- Expectant moms should always contact their physician or midwife if they suspect they are going into labor or that a complication is occurring.