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  • Writer's pictureNutured Birth Ottawa

Managing Prodromal Labour: What to Expect l Ottawa Doula Tips

Pregnant woman leaning over holding her back. Although we don't see it, she is experiencing prodromal labour and being emotionally supported by doulas in Ottawa.

Imagine it. You have been pregnant for 9 months and have been anxiously awaiting your little one. You are just heading to bed when you start feeling some fairly strong cramping that, you realize, is rhythmic. Hurrah! It's time! You realize that you are contracting every 10 minutes. From your child birth education class you learned that your contractions should slowly become more intense and closer together. However, as time goes on you realize that this isn't happening. Your contractions continue at 8-10 minutes apart, without increasing in intensity or frequency. This goes on allllllll night, slows, and stops in the morning. You brush it off, realizing that it's normal for labour to have starts and stops, and go about your day. When bed time rolls around, lo and behold, you start having the same pattern of contractions! 10 minutes apart, not increase in intensity. What the heck is going on?! You are having prodromal labour!

What is prodromal labour?

Prodromal labour is a contraction pattern that mimics some of the signs and symptoms of active labour but does not progress into true active labour.  It typically involves irregular contractions that may be uncomfortable or even painful, but they don't increase in intensity, frequency, or duration as true labor contractions do. Prodromal labour is frequently referred to as pre-labour, false-labour (I personally can't stand when it's referred to this way as nothing about it feels false), or practice labour.

Prodromal labour vs. progressive labour

But wait, how can you tell the difference between prodromal labour and progressive or "true" labour? There are a few major differences!

  1. The frequency and duration of contractions. Prodromal labour contractions are often irregular. They may not follow a consistent pattern and may not increase over time. By contrast, true labour becomes more regular and frequent as time goes on. They typically follow a pattern which involves starting off mild and gradually becoming stronger and closer together.

  2. Whether there are cervical changes or not. In prodromal labour, cervical changes, such as dilation and effacement, are minimal if not absent. In progressive labour, the cervix will slowly begin to dilate and efface.

  3. Whether the contractions start and stop or not. Prodromal labor can last for hours or even days. It is often characterized by starts and stops, with contractions coming and going without leading to active labor. Progressive labor typically progresses steadily once it begins. The duration of progressive labor varies from person to person, but generally lasts until the baby is born.

  4. Intensity of contractions. While contractions during prodromal labor can be uncomfortable or even painful, they are often less intense than contractions experienced during active labor. True labour contractions become increasingly intense and painful as labor progresses.

  5. Progression to active labor. Prodromal labor may or may not progress to active labor whereas true labour may look similarly to prodromal labour, but always leads to active labor, dilation of the cervix, and birth!

Coping strategies

As you can imagine, prodromal labour can be challenging. Not only is it physically demanding, but it can be emotionally draining due to the uncertainty of not knowing if or when it may turn into progressive labour. Here are some strategies on how to cope with prodromal labour.

Stay calm and relaxed: Stress and anxiety can make contractions feel more painful. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, or meditation to help keep yourself calm.

Stay hydrated and nourished: Drink plenty of water and eat small, nutritious snacks to keep your energy levels up. Dehydration and hunger can make prodromal labor symptoms feel more intense.

Change positions: Experiment with different positions to find what feels most comfortable during contractions. Some women find relief from walking, rocking, swaying, or using a birth ball. Changing positions can also help encourage the baby to move into a more optimal position for birth.

Take warm baths or showers: A warm bath or shower can help relax your muscles and alleviate discomfort during prodromal labor.

Use relaxation techniques: Practice relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, or listening to calming music. These techniques can help distract your mind from discomfort and promote relaxation.

Seek support: Lean on your partner or doula for emotional support! Having someone to talk to can be a huge help.

Rest and conserve energy: This is especially important for prodromal labour that lasts for an extended period. Take naps, lie down in a comfortable position, or simply relax in a quiet environment. If you can, try to ignore it!

Stay in touch with your healthcare provider: Your midwife can provide guidance and reassurance during periods of prodromal labour.

My experience of prodromal labour

As an Ottawa Doula, and someone who experienced up to a week of prodromal labour with all 3 of my babies, I have so much compassion for families when they are experiencing it. Yes, you read that correctly. I experienced about a full week of painful contractions, anywhere from 5-20 minutes apart, lasting a good 6 hours or more per day! I found this period to be not just physically demanding, but also emotionally draining. The regular contractions along with never knowing when I would actually go into true labour was incredibly wearing. Fortunately my birth team kept me nourished, distracted, and physically and emotionally supported. They made a huge difference in my ability to make it through what felt like an eternally long week, and still have the energy to have the birth I wanted! When it comes to practice labour, support is everything!

If there was a silver lining to my prodromal labour, it is that it helped me get a snapshot of what labour felt like. It gave me the opportunity to try different comfort measures and see what worked the best for me. In this way it helped me feel more prepared for the real deal!

It's important to remember ...

Prodromal labor is normal! While not everyone has prodromal labour, many women experience it in the days or weeks leading up to progressive labor. It doesn't indicate that anything is wrong, and it doesn't mean that you can't trust your body to let you know when you are in progressive labour. Stay patient and trust in your body's ability to transition into true labour the time is right.

This post was written by Ottawa Doula, and Ottawa Prenatal Nutritionist, Julia Davie. Her approach to birth work is heart centred, holistic and inclusive. She is honoured to support families in Ottawa, Gatineau, and the surrounding areas.


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