Tell the difference between true and false labour

False labour
False labour

Nature often prepares a woman for the imminent birth of her baby by means of false labour – also called pre-labour, prodromal labour or Braxton Hicks contractions – which can leave you feeling a bit sheepish if you have woken everyone at dawn for a mad dash to the hospital, only to be sent home again.

On the other hand, you don’t want to ignore what you are feeling and get to the hospital too late after delivering your baby in the car on the way.

False labour prepares your body for the real thing

It is often very difficult to distinguish between prodromal and real contractions, as they can be very intense and uncomfortable. Prodromal labour contractions may begin hours or even days before real labour.

Although pre-labour contractions do not dilate the cervix or result in the birth of the baby, they do help prepare your body for the real thing.

What else can cause false labour?

Dehydration and urinary tract infections, as well as extreme exhaustion and fatigue can also produce uncomfortable contractions. Always check with your caregiver if you are worried – especially if it could mean premature labour.

While there are no hard-and-fast rules to differentiate between true and false labour, there are some general characteristics.

You are NOT likely to be in true labour if:

  • The contractions are irregular and stop if you lie down or walk around. They do not increase in frequency or duration.
  • The contractions subside altogether if you change position or have two large glasses of water.
  • The pain is centred in your lower abdomen rather than your lower back.
  • Your show (if any) is brownish (most likely the result of either an internal examination or intercourse within the last 48 hours).

It IS more likely to be true labour if:

  • The contractions are regular and persistent and gradually increase in frequency, duration and strength.
  • If your contractions are becoming difficult to cope with and they are coming at four to five minute intervals, you’re probably in labour.
  • The contractions intensify with activity and are not relieved by a change in position or having something to drink
  • The pain begins in your lower back and spreads to your abdomen and may also radiate to the tops of the legs.
  • Show is present and either pinkish or blood-streaked.
  • Your membranes have released (waters broken).

If you are still uncertain whether you are experiencing true labour or false labour

Although these characteristics may hold true for the majority of women, some experience false labour that is so intense it is indistinguishable from true labour.

Likewise, some women have true labour in which the contractions fail to fall into any recognisable pattern and may initially seem to be a bout of false labour. The only way to know for sure is to be examined by a midwife or your doctor.

Call the labour ward

Call the labour ward before you head for the hospital. Be ready to describe the length of the contractions and their frequency, and to comment on any other important observations – such as whether there is fluid leaking from the vagina, or whether you have had a bloody show?

If there is any uncertainty

If there is any uncertainty you will be asked to go in for an internal examination or be placed on a foetal heart monitor to assess the contractions.

When your contractions are 5 minutes apart, lasting at least 60 seconds

It’s time to contact your obstetrician or midwife and get to the hospital when you are having regular contractions 5 minutes apart that last at least 60 seconds.

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