True Labor or False Labor

Patient Education Materials

Pregnancy and Childbirth

True Labor or False Labor

“How will I know when it is real labor?” This is a question you may have as you near the end of your pregnancy.

Many women have periods of “false” labor late in their pregnancy. During false labor, you have contractions that seem to come and go. False labor pains are called “Braxton Hicks” contractions. These contractions help soften and thin your cervix. They tend to happen more often as you get closer to your due date (2 to 4 weeks before birth).

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between false labor and true labor. Don’t be upset or embarrassed if you think labor is beginning when it is actually a false alarm.

Differences between false labor and true labor

There are several ways to tell the difference between true and false labor.

Timing of contractions

  • False labor: Contractions are often irregular. They don’t get closer together over time.
  • True labor: Contractions come regularly and get closer together. Each contraction lasts about 30 to 60 seconds.
Strength of contractions
  • False labor: Contractions are often weak and do not get stronger.
  • True labor: Contractions get stronger as time goes on.
Change with movement
  • False labor: Contractions may stop or slow down when you walk, lie down, or change positions.
  • True labor: Contractions continue no matter what you do.
Pain with contractions
  • False labor: Discomfort is usually felt in the front, like menstrual cramps.
  • True labor: Discomfort or pressure starts in the back and moves to the front.

If your water breaks

Sometimes labor begins when the bag of waters, or membranes, breaks. This may happen with your early contractions. Or your water may not break until later into your labor.

If your water breaks, you may notice a near constant trickle of fluid from the vagina or a sudden gush of fluid.

If you think your bag of waters is leaking or broken, call your doctor right away.

Other physical changes

You also may have physical changes that occur as your body gets ready for labor. It is normal to have a slight increase of thin, white discharge at the end of pregnancy. Activities like coughing, sneezing, or laughing may cause leaking of urine.

You also may notice a change in appetite, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation. The loss of your mucus plug often precedes labor by a few days. Mucus may be present 2 to 14 days before true labor begins.

Everyone experiences labor in a different way. Call your doctor if you think you are in labor.