Prelabor, False Labor, Real Labor: 15 Ways To Tell The Difference

Whether or not a woman is really in labor can actually be confusing at times! This is especially true if a woman is a first-time mom and has never experienced pregnancy or childbirth before. Figuring out whether or not she really is in labor can be one of the most mind-boggling things that she can experience. This is because many woman experience contractions prior to being in true labor or real labor.

Contractions that happen prior to labor actually beginning have several names such as Braxton Hicks contractions, false labor contractions or pre-labor contractions. For the purpose of this article, I will always refer to them as pre-labor contractions because I agree more with that term.

All contractions prior to true labor help our bodies prepare for the main event. It is like running a marathon; you don’t just go out there and run without any prior training.

As it has been described to me by my own midwife, pre-labor contractions are like the training sessions your body goes through preparing for the main event of birth. According to my midwife, they happen to everyone whether we feel them or not. Some women actually don’t feel any contractions prior to going into true labor and this is okay.

Not everyone feels them but it doesn’t mean their bodies aren’t preparing for birth – they are indeed preparing, just in a different way.

Although it can be difficult to distinguish between pre-labor and true labor at first, true labor actually has very specific characteristics that do not exist in pre-labor. Thankfully, they are all outlined for you here for your convenience! The first half is a list of characteristics associated with pre-labor contractions, while the second half lists clear indicators of real labor. If you are confused about what real labor contractions look like, look no further! Here are 15 ways to tell the difference between pre-labor and true labor.


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15 They Are Inconsistent

In true labor, contractions are in a pattern and increase in intensity and frequency. If your contractions are all over the place or don’t follow a pattern then they are likely only pre-labor contractions and there is no need for you to run to the hospital just yet.

Some women experience pre-labor contractions starting early on in the 2nd trimester, lasting all the way up until when they go into real labor.

Other women experience zero pre-labor contractions and only experience true labor. Everyone is different and there is no real ‘normal’ when it comes to this fact. Even if your due date is fast approaching or has already past, these inconsistent contractions are nothing to be too concerned about. Most hospitals want you to wait until your contractions are in a consistent pattern before making the trek to Labor and Delivery.

14 They Are More Uncomfortable Than Painful

From my own personal experience, I have felt contractions early on in my pregnancy. Sometimes they were pretty frequent and normally that would have been a cause for concern, except that they weren’t really painful and only caused me moderate discomfort. Upon discussing this with my healthcare team, I was reassured by this fact.

Real contractions definitely hurt and get more and more intense but pre-labor contractions are more uncomfortable than painful. They may feel like your abdomen is being squeezed but there is little or no pain associated with this feeling. If you are experiencing contractions without very much pain, they are likely just pre-labor contractions. This is especially true if they are not in a consistent pattern. Labor contractions will feel much more intense and will raise more cause for concern, so keep an eye out for painful and repetitive contractions before you declare yourself in labor.

13 They Are Really Far Apart

If your contractions are really far apart, they are likely only pre-labor contractions. True labor contractions are close together and come one after the other. Contractions that are in a consistent pattern but happen more sparingly are only considered pre-labor contractions, according to most healthcare professionals.

According to the chart given to me by my midwifery practice (Family Care Midwives),

you would be instructed to alert your health care provider or head to the hospital if your contractions are 4-5 minutes apart and last at minimum 1 minute.

If this is happening then you are considered in “active labor” and it’s time to get the ball rolling as your baby is on the way. If ever you are concerned about this or have questions regarding this number, please don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare practitioner or your birthing center.

12 They Are Brought On By Activity

Once real labor starts, there is no stopping it. That baby is coming and your body is going to take over and do its own thing. This means that in real labor, it doesn’t matter how active or restful you are, the contractions will continue and do so in a consistent pattern over a longer, but steady period of time.

Pre-labor contractions, on the other hand, can be brought on by activity, especially activity that is intense and long-lasting. So if you are perhaps chasing one of your older children up and down stairs all day, for example, this can bring on pre-labor contractions. Unlike real labor, these types of pre-labor contractions will subside with rest. Real labor contractions will continue, no matter what.

11 They Can Subside


Just like how pre-labor contractions can be brought on by activity, pre-labor contractions can also subside with rest, whereas real contractions will not. There is a lot that pregnant women can do

but sometimes extensive or excessive activity trigger pre-labor contractions and the only thing that can calm or relax the contractions is rest.

When I experienced this for myself, my OB recommended taking a warm bath or putting my feet up. More often than not, this helped resolved the contractions. These were undoubtedly pre-labor contractions and not a sign of true labor because the rest helped them subside. In the event of true labor, there would be nothing (save for medical intervention in some situations) that would stop the contractions from progressing.

10 They Are Felt In The Lower Abdomen

If you are having contractions that are primarily in your lower abdomen, then it is pretty safe to say that you are only experiencing pre-labor contractions. University of Pittsburg Medical Center’s website describes true labor contractions as contractions where the discomfort or pressure starts at the top in the back of your belly and moves down towards the front.

It is true that pre-labor contractions can be felt anywhere but contractions that are primarily felt low in the front of your belly are less likely to mean you are in real labor. If you are experiencing consistent contractions or cramping in your lower abdomen, however, it is important to speak to your doctor or midwife about this as it can be an indication of other issues during your pregnancy such as a symptom of a UTI (Urinary Tract Infection).

9 They Are Varying Lengths

If you are experiencing contractions that varry in time duration, it is likely that you are only experiencing pre-labor. Although this can differ from person to person, true labor contractions tend to have pain and pressure that last close to the same amount of time and continue in a repetitive pattern.

True labor contractions generally last 45 seconds to one minute at a time and may gradually increase in length of time over the course of your labor.

But that being said, it is rare for one contraction to be very short followed by another contraction that is much longer. If you are experiencing something like this, you’re likely not experiencing real labor and you are probably only in the pre-labor stages. Once contractions begin to become more regular, lasting for comparable lengths of time in a predictable pattern, then it is safe to say you are truly in labor and that the baby is on its way.

True Labor

8 They Have A Pattern


I have mentioned this before in previous sections but it is a very important point. If you are having contractions that are in a consistent pattern then it is a cause for concern because you may be in true labor.

While pre-labor contractions tend to be all over the place, true labor contractions have a certain rhythm to them that is consistent when it comes to timing. It is important that you keep track of these contractions and write them down. You want to look for a consistent pattern that is more in line with your doctor’s guidelines on looking out for active labor (most women receive an information package about this form their OB or Midwife). If your contractions are developing a consistent pattern that has not changed for some time, it is important to call your healthcare provider, as there’s a good chance you are in labor things are about to get real.

7 They Consistently Last 45-60 Seconds


Along with looking out for contractions that have a consistent pattern, it is important to look for contractions that are consistently lasting 45 to 60 seconds in duration minimum.

Contractions that are lasting approximately a minute long and maintain this duration over and over again in sequence tend to be more in line with being in real labor.

Sure, one contraction may last 45 seconds and the next one may last 60 and the one after that may go back down to 50 seconds, but as long as they are all consistently in the range of time duration then it is likely that you are in labor. If you are experiencing something like this then you should think about heading to the hospital, or at the very least contacting your midwife or OB’s office for some professional guidance.

6 They Increase In Intensity Over Time

Together with having a pattern and lasting 45 to 60 seconds minimum, if your contractions are increasing in intensity in a pattern overtime, then you’re likely really in labor and your baby is due to make an appearance sooner than later.

True labor contractions stay in a consistent pattern and according to Family Care Midwives, they do increase in terms of their duration and intensity of pain over an extended period of time. As you get closer to being fully dilated, your contractions will get more painful and last longer. This is a sure sign of active labor and usually means that things are well on their way. If this is happening then it is important to definitely make the necessary arrangements to get yourself to wherever you plan on giving birth, whether it be a hospital birthing centre or perhaps a birthing pool in your living room. When things increase in intensity it is a sure sign that your bundle of joy is well on its way.

5 They Are Consistently 4-5 Minutes Apart


If you are experiencing contractions that are consistently at least 4 to 5 minutes apart, then it’s time to do a happy dance as it’s likely that you are in real labor. Unlike pre-labor contractions that tend to be more sporadic and farther apart, true labor contractions are representative of a pattern where contractions are occurring every 4 to 5 minutes, at least.

In most literature given to pregnant patients by their doctors, including a package that I myself was given for my own midwives,

contractions that are 4 to 5 minutes apart and last anywhere from 45 seconds to one minute minimum in duration mean that things are starting to get real and the baby is on its way.

If you are experiencing this then I would definitely make the necessary arrangements to get yourself to where you plan on delivering your new bundle of joy.

4 They Help The Cervix Dialate

Although it is true that your cervix can be dilated weeks before you actually go into labor, if your cervix is dilating while having contractions at regular intervals, it is safe to say you are in labor. Of course, there is no way of knowing if you are dilating without being checked by a health care practitioner, but most of them will check you at the beginning of labor and encourage regular checks as your labor progresses.

Depending on your health care practitioner, they will determine the process for checking for dilatation. If you have gone the midwife route, most midwives will come to your house and check you as your labor progresses. If you are being cared for by an OB, you will likely go to their practice or the hospital to be checked. Regardless of how you are receiving care, regular cervical checks begin in the last few weeks of pregnancy and continue until birth.

3  They Happen Even If The Water Didn't Break

When you anxiously awaiting the birth of your little one and you are torn as to whether or not you are truly in labor, there is one sign that is a strong indicator that labor is in progress or imminent: your water breaking. Whether you have contractions prior to this or whether your water breaks before any contractions begin,

if you have a breaking of waters it is safe to say you are in labor.

But don’t expect this to happen like we see in the movies! According to Family Care Midwives, only 12 percent of women have their water break prior to contractions starting. It is much more likely your water will break in the middle of active labor than before labor starts. That being said, it can happen. If your water breaks at any point, call your healthcare provider.

2 They Are A Specific Kind Of Pain

One way to help you be able to tell if you are truly in labor is where the pain is coming from: Contractions that mainly begin and stay within the lower abdomen tend to be pre-labor contractions. However, if you are experiencing contractions with pain that starts at the top of your belly and then moves downwards to your lower abdomen, those are more indicative of true labor contractions and should be monitored for frequency and intensity.

When you are really in labor, those contractions tend to be more intense then contractions felt previously. Of course, if you have never been in labor before, this can be confusing to distinguish. Chances are if you begin to feel something that is much more intense than anything you’ve felt before, it is safe to say you are in labor and you will be seeing your little one shortly!

1 They Cannot Be Stopped

When it comes to pre-labor contractions, also known as Braxton Hicks Contractions, they can come in many shapes and forms but have similar characteristics including little or no pain, feeling like more pressure than pain, being sporadic in nature and eventually subsiding with adequate rest. Along with having none of these characteristics, true labor contractions also do not stop or subside with rest.

When your body is in labor, there is no stopping it.

Yes, it is true that labor can slow down and regain strength again but ultimately when you are really in labor it will not stop completely. If you are having contractions that do not stop when you slow down your activity level or rest completely, then it is safe to say you are experiencing the real deal. It is important to monitor these contractions and call your health care provider if they continue to come in regular intervals.

References: upmc.com, familycaremidwives.ca

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