The Fallacy of False Labor

Woman in early labor, with partner timing contractions

The Truth About False LaborIt is a very common theme:

  • Women in my classes want to know “how do I know if it is false labor?”
  • Posts on Social Media “Is this real labor? I’ll be embarrassed to go in if it is false labor!”
  • Expectant neighbors or family members calling at all hours “should I go to the hospital, or is this just false labor?”
  • Clients who say “I’m sorry to call you, I know it might be false labor but I just can’t tell!”

So here’s the truth about false labor: IT DOES NOT EXIST. (OK, maybe it does kinda exist, but it’s a bad name for it and I wish the name didn’t exist!)

Some people define “False Labor” as “Pains resembling true labor but occurring before a labor pattern resulting in the birth of a baby.”

So let’s look at what is happening with false labor:

1. Mom’s uterus is actually contracting. That’s not false. It’s something that is truly happening.
2. Mom’s cervix might be dilating. Many women begin labor with some dilation already happening, and this is when it happens. It’s real, true change.
3. Mom’s cervix might not be *dilating* but it probably is making some of the other changes that are still progress in labor: effacement (this is huge for first time moms!), change in the cervical position, ripening the cervix, helping baby to rotate and engage in the pelvis. These are real, true progress.
4. Mom may be missing out on sleep, unable to focus on other tasks, and is feeling some real discomfort.

Personally I think that it is patronizing and dismissive to call these very real experiences of women “false” – it can be hugely discouraging!

There are several other terms that could be used to describe what mom is feeling, all are better than “false labor”:

My preferred term is “warmup labor” – her body is warming up, getting ready, and literally flexing the uterine muscle in preparation for birth.

Some call it “prelabor” – meaning it is happening before the labor that ends with the birth of a baby.

Some call it “prodromal labor” – this is not my preferred term because it sounds as though something is wrong that needs to be fixed or treated. Sometimes even doulas jump to “If you’re having prodromal labor, it must be a positioning thing! Let’s (insert their favorite “prescription” for “fixing” it here.)

Having periods of contractions off and on before the birth of your baby is a very normal and common thing. It doesn’t need to be fixed, it doesn’t need to be hurried. It usually isn’t even important in the moment to know for certain whether this is a temporary warming up or a warming up right before the big event. It’s OK to not know for sure. And it is fine to call your midwife, doula or doctor if you are not sure. They will likely tell you to watch and wait and see what happens. Either way your baby will eventually come!

But don’t ever let anyone convince you that it is “false” or all in your head!

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