False Labor or Preterm Labor? How to Know the Difference

by Cindy Fahey, MSN, RN, PHN

is this labor?If you go to the hospital and tell your doctor that you are in labor before your 37th week, your doctor may become alarmed and treat you for preterm labor before fully assessing what is going on. Preterm labor is serious and needs to be treated immediately, but it can also be confused with false labor.

Since preterm babies are at higher risk of needing hospitalization, having long-term health problems and dying, it is important for you to know and understand the difference between false labor and true labor. Knowledge of the difference between these two types of labor will help speed your provider's understanding of what is going on and ensure that your baby is healthy and not born unnecessarily early.

Signs of False Labor

False labor is characterized by contractions that are irregular and unpredictable. They may be painful, and you might be very afraid, but it is important to pay careful attention to them to help your provider make an accurate diagnosis. The best way to know whether you are experiencing false labor is to determine whether the nature, intensity and duration of your contractions changes when you change your position. For example, your contractions may feel regular while you are lying down, but if you get up and walk around, they change.

If you are nervous or concerned about what you are experiencing, or if you are unsure whether you are in false labor or true labor, don’t hesitate to call your doctor or midwife's office or hospital and describe what is happening. By paying attention to the signs described here, you can better describe your symptoms and help your caregivers give you good advice.

Signs of Labor

Preterm Labor and labor are the same thing -- it's just that preterm labor occurs before your 37th week of pregnancy. Both are characterized by contractions that are consistent, increase in intensity and usually follow a pattern. Labor causes changes in the cervix, which may become obvious to you through bloody show, a slow leak or rupture of the membranes, often described as your water breaking.

Although labor patterns can vary from woman to woman, labor pains are generally described as feeling like a belt is wrapped around the midsection of your stomach, and the belt is being tightened from front to back. You should notice a progression of pain that becomes increasingly difficult on a consistent basis as labor progresses. Labor contractions are usually a steady distance apart and the time between contractions should steadily decline. If you change your position or move around, the intensity and frequency of your contractions should not change.

If you feel that you are experiencing labor, call your caregiver's office and describe what is happening. By paying attention to the signs described here, you can better describe your symptoms and help your caregivers give you good advice.

Are You At Risk for Preterm Labor?

According to the March of Dimes, Three groups of women are at greatest risk of preterm labor and birth:

  • Women who have had a previous preterm birth
  • Women who are pregnant with twins, triplets or more
  • Women with certain uterine or cervical abnormalities

Most importantly, talk to your doctor about the signs of labor, what you should do if you believe that you are experiencing preterm labor, and any complications that might put you at risk for preterm labor such as twin pregnancy, gestational diabetes, hypertension, etc.

Professional Efforts

It is important that women know and understand the signs of both false and true labor because it will help them speed accurate diagnosis and treatment. From a professional standpoint, the March of Dimes and the Perinatal Advisory Council (PAC/LAC) are rolling out a program designed to standardize preterm labor assessment and ultimately improve the quality of maternal and neonatal/infant care. This program should improve professionals' abilities to effectively triage women who are in preterm labor versus those who are experiencing false labor.

Cindy Fahey, MSN, RN, PHN, has more than thirty years of maternal child health experience. She has clinical experience in almost every area of maternal child health. She is Executive Director of PAC/LAC and holds certifications in childbirth education, healthcare education, infant massage, and lactation. The Perinatal Advisory Council: Leadership, Advocacy and Consultation (PAC/LAC), provides information on perinatal care to hospitals, community-based organizations and other healthcare systems in California. It also offers custom consulting services including program planning, research, educational programs, grant writing, program evaluation, advocacy and facility financial management.

Copyright © Cindy Fahey. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.