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False Labor

Alternate Names

  • prelabor
  • Braxton Hicks contractions
  • prodromal labor
  • latent phase

Definition

False labor or pre-labor is often called the first stage of labor. It occurs when the cervix begins to thin out, shorten, and soften. False labor causes contractions that feel like the uterus is knotting up. These contractions, known as Braxton-Hicks contractions, are often irregular and do not get closer together consistently. They may stop when the woman rests and usually do not get stronger. However, false labor can feel just like true labor to a woman.

What is going on in the body?

No one knows exactly what causes labor to start, but changes in hormones play a role. Labor begins when the cervix begins to open. The walls of the uterus, which are made of muscle, contract at regular intervals. During contractions, the abdomen becomes hard. Between contractions, the uterus relaxes and the abdomen becomes soft. False labor can precede real labor by a very short time or by a full month or more.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

No one knows exactly what triggers labor, though several theories have been suggested. The cause may be a combination of fetal, placental, and maternal factors. The chief concern as labor approaches is that the woman will mistake true labor for false labor and delay calling the healthcare professional. This can result in a home birth or an emergency delivery that could have been avoided. Many women worry about being embarrassed if their call to the healthcare professional turns out to be false labor. It is always best to err on the side of caution and call.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

No prevention is needed because Braxton Hicks contractions are normal. The uterus contracts throughout pregnancy.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

False labor is diagnosed by the clinical history of the contractions and a physical examination of the cervix. False labor does not cause the cervix to dilate or to thin out.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

False labor can cause pain severe enough to create breathlessness and the need to sit down. It is not uncommon for a woman to think she is in labor, and go to the hospital, only to be sent home again.
Sometimes Braxton Hicks contractions can last for several weeks, and the woman can become anxious and exhausted. This can lead to a vicious cycle that makes progress into labor more difficult.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

The woman must be reassured that false labor is normal, and very common. Not all healthcare professionals agree on the best approach to a prolonged and painful false labor. If the woman is exhausted, an anti-anxiety medication may be the only way to give the uterus some much-needed rest. The medication can space out the contractions and allow the woman to rest. A sedative or sleeping medication may also be prescribed.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

It is important to use the smallest possible dose of medication to avoid harm to the unborn child..

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

After a few hours of rest and sleep, it is not unusual to have real labor begin.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

The woman can monitor these symptoms to tell whether false labor is progressing into real labor:
  • Contractions in false labor are not regular and do not increase in severity. They also tend to subside on walking or changing position. In real labor, the contractions intensify with activity and are not relieved by a change in position.
  • In false labor, discharge from the vagina is brownish. In real labor, it is pinkish or blood-streaked.
If the contractions get closer together and increase in strength, it is important to call the healthcare professional immediately.

Sources

Planning for Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

What to Expect when You're Expecting, Eisenberg.

From Here to Maternity : A Complete Guide to Pregnancy, Marshall.

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