All about false labour

by | Mar 24, 2021

Knowing the difference between true labour and false labour is vital, particularly for first time moms. Doula Donna Bland spells out what you need to know.

Pregnancy brings with it some strange experiences, including little niggly cramps and discomforts that can make you wonder, is this it? Has my labour started?

Labour begins with the onset of contractions of the uterus, which in turn dilate (open) and efface (thin out) the cervix, and the opening of the uterus. This process allows the baby to descend into the pelvis further and eventually be born. The question is, what determines the difference between true labour and false labour?

The uterus is a muscle that stretches to about 500 times its original size during pregnancy. Around 20 weeks gestation, a woman’s body will start to prepare for labour by introducing painless contractions called Braxton Hicks. These contractions will create a tightening sensation in the belly but are generally not intense or regular.

In the last few days or even weeks of pregnancy, mothers may start to experience contractions that are more intense and regular, known as prodromal labour. These contractions are not a cause for concern but may be confused with true labour because of their perceived similarity.

Prodromal labour, however, will stop for long periods, unlike true labour contractions that get longer, stronger and closer together. Prodromal labour can reoccur several times at the end of pregnancy and most researchers agree that it is the body’s way of preparing for labour.

Pregnancy is unpredictable and expected due dates (EDD) are just a guideline of when to expect our babies to arrive. This can be confusing, especially for first time moms. So let’s look at some comparisons and how to have a better idea of which is which.

There are several signs that labour may have started:
  1. As previously discussed, contractions are a good sign of labour, but more specifically contractions that get stronger with time, last longer and become more intense. For example, the contractions may start out being 20 minutes apart and last for 30 seconds. As labour progresses, they may start coming every 15 minutes and lasting for 40 seconds, and so on.
  2. Some moms experience backache or period-like cramps to begin with.
  3. There may be an urge to go to the toilet, as your baby descends and leans on your bowel.
  4. If it hasn’t already, your cervix’s mucous plug or “show” may come away. This may happen days before labour begins or as labour starts.
  5. Your waters may break. This is the amniotic fluid surrounding your baby.

If you are still unsure, I usually suggest:

  • Lying down – do the contractions go away or not? If the contractions don’t go away or get worse, chances are you are in labour. If they go away, it may be prodromal labour or you may be in the early stages of labour.
  • Time the contractions to see if they are regular and if they increase in intensity and get longer and more frequent.

Giving birth to your precious newborn is an exciting journey that will make you question all sorts of things. Remember, safety comes first and if at any time you are concerned, contact your primary caregiver. They are there to make sure that you and your baby are safe and healthy, and that ultimately there is a positive outcome for all.