False Labor

As your estimated time of delivery approaches, you may notice that Braxton Hicks contractions become more frequent and intense. It is very common for women to think that they are experiencing the real thing only to go to the hospital or call their midwife and be told it was a false alarm or “false labor.” You may be asking yourself, “What is false labor?” and “How will I know if I am experiencing false labor?” The following information will be a guide for you as the time draws closer.

What is false labor?

Signs of false labor include:

  • Contractions are irregular and unpredictable (for example, in intervals of ten minutes, six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc.)
  • No progression is seen over time
  • Contractions are felt as a generalized abdominal tightening
  • Change in activity or position causes contractions to slow down or stop
  • There is usually no bloody show
  • Membranes will not rupture

False Labor vs. True Labor:

How frequent are your contractions? Record your contractions using a watch or clock, jotting down the time the first one begins and the next one begins. True labor develops into a regular pattern, with contractions growing closer together. In false labor they remain irregular.

How long does each one last? Record how long each contraction lasts by jotting down when it begins and when it stops. True contractions last more than 30 seconds at the onset and get progressively longer, up to 60 seconds. False labor contractions vary in length and intensity.

Do the contractions continue with change in activity? The contractions in true labor continue regardless of activity and even grow stronger with increased activity such as walking. False labor contractions often stop regardless of activity.

Where do you feel the contractions? In true labor the pain tends to begin high in your abdomen, radiating throughout your entire abdomen and lower back, or visa versa. In false labor the contractions are often concentrated in the lower abdomen and groin.

Even after trying to monitor all of these signs of labor, you may not know whether you’re truly in labor. Some women have painful contractions for days with no cervical changes, but others may feel only a little pressure and backache.

Should I go to the hospital or birth center?

Sometimes a woman may disregard what she’s feeling because her due date is weeks away, and then when she goes in for her regular checkup finds she’s fully dilated. You might leave for the hospital or birth center with regular contractions that are 3 minutes apart, and after you arrive, they simply stop. If this happens, don’t feel embarrassed or frustrated. Instead, think positively and regard it as a good practice run.

The scenario is different for everyone, but false alarms seem more convincing in second and third labors despite the fact that those moms have experience. If in doubt, call your health care provider. Remember though, if your contractions continue to get longer, stronger and closer together; you’re on your way!

Last Updated: 09/2008

Compiled using information from the following sources:

Planning Your Pregnancy and Birth Third Ed. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Ch. 8.

William’s Obstetrics Twenty-Second Ed. Cunningham, F. Gary, et al, Ch. 17.

American Pregnancy Association, http://www.americanpregnancy.org

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