Recognizing true labor contractions can be challenging, even if you’ve had a baby before. It’s important to stay attuned to your physical symptoms during pregnancy, because fast action may be necessary if health conditions develop or when actual labor begins. By monitoring sensations and symptoms, you will know whether what you’re feeling is true labor or just prodromal labor – also called "false" labor.
Pay close attention to the timing of your contractions for one hour. Note the time between the beginning of one contraction to beginning of the next contraction, as well as the length of each contraction. True labor contractions will last at least 30 seconds and up to 70 seconds, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. If, over the course of one hour, your contractions get stronger, longer and closer together, this indicates true labor, states the Ask Dr. Sears website. If your contractions keep the same intensity without establishing a pattern, it's probably false labor. For example, false labor contractions might be seven minutes apart, 10 minutes apart, two minutes apart and then five minutes apart.
Monitor the intensity of your contractions over the one-hour period. If the contractions stay consistent at the same level of intensity, it’s likely they are not true contractions. You might experience some pressure feelings with false labor, but the pain isn't more than uncomfortable. As true labor progresses, the contractions will become so intense that they take your breath away. False labor will not progress to this point.
Assess the sensations of the contractions. False labor contractions feel like abdominal tightening across the front of your uterus, states the American Pregnancy Association. With true labor, contractions usually originate in the front and move around to your lower back.
Determine whether a change in activity level affects contractions. With true labor, moving around and walking usually intensifies contractions, according to Sutter Health. If changes in activity ease your contractions, then you are probably not in true labor. True labor progresses without interruption and the pains become stronger, harder and faster. With false labor, walking usually diminishes the contractions. If you lie down with false labor, it’s common for the contractions to dissipate completely. Lying down to rest when you think you might be in labor is often an effective way to determine whether you’re in true labor because with false labor, contractions will disappear and with true labor, they will continue or even intensify.
Note any other symptoms you might be having that often accompany true labor. You might experience bloody show, which is a blood-tinged vaginal discharge, states the University of Maryland Medical Center. Bloody show indicates that your cervix is beginning to dilate in preparation for labor and delivery. You might also experience diarrhea, nausea and a slow leak or a gush of fluid if your water breaks prior to or during labor.
Call your caregiver if you feel regular contractions, pelvic pressure or if you experience bleeding or heavy vaginal discharge. A cervix check will determine whether your cervix is dilating. Medical monitoring of your contractions will also determine whether they are true or false contractions.