Most women expect when labour begins, contractions will start, their waters will break, then their baby will be born.
Sure, it might take a while and they may be a little worried about the pain, but it can’t be too bad, because after all, most people have more than one child. Right?
Not everyone has a straightforward, textbook experience of labour. For many women, labour has a long warm up stage – known as pre-labour (aka false labour or prodromal labour).
Pre-labour is the body’s way of preparing it to go into labour. It’s not the real deal, but it can feel like it.
Why Pre-labour Sucks (Majorly)
Here are 7 reasons why pre-labour sucks:
#1: The Lack of Sleep
The first night you wake up at 2am with contractions, you can barely contain your excitement. You might get up and time them for a while, but the excitement slowly wanes.
What’s going on?! Ten minutes, five minutes, thirty minutes – where’s the pattern and progression you’ve been expecting?! Eventually you might get back to sleep, and wake up the next morning wondering if it was all a dream. Until the next 2am call. And the next.
Pre-labour can be very disruptive to sleep, so much so, some women fear they won’t have the energy to give birth when labour finally begins.
#2: Is It?! Isn’t It?!… Is It?
Pre-labour is a major tease, there is no doubt about it. You might be expecting contractions that feel like slightly more intense Braxton Hicks and instead are having contractions that feel more like…well contractions. You’re actually uncomfortable enough that you need to have a shower or use a heat pack.
But then they stop for an hour or two. Or a day. And reappear as though they were just waiting for you to think ‘false alarm’ and start the confusion again.
It can be hard to tell if prelabour is the real deal. The best way to figure it out is to track your contractions and see if they are regular, getting closer together and stronger. You might have other signs of early labour as well.
#3: So Close, Yet So Far
Most women will admit they are completely sick of being pregnant by the time they are full term (37 – 42 weeks). It feels like a cruel joke Nature plays on us, making it seem as though pregnancy is going to last forever and ever.
For some women, prelabour can happen over weeks or days. It can feel as though you are stuck in limbo, still pregnant and not in labour but almost. It doesn’t help your relatives and friends are probably requesting updates every 10 minutes, asking for news that you haven’t got. Your support team are being patient but you’re conscious they are putting their lives on hold while your body diddles around and can’t make up its mind what it is doing!
#4: No End In Sight
There is no nice way to say this – no one can tell you how long prelabour is going to take. It might be hours, it could be days: some women have experienced prelabour for a month or longer. Even if your care provider checks your cervix, you might learn something about its state then and there, but cervical checks aren’t crystal balls and don’t predict the future.
There are any number of natural induction methods you might be willing to try and for the most part, these are all harmless. You might try and trick your body into ignoring prelabour and getting on with your day, booking yourself a table at a fancy restaurant in the hopes your waters embarrassingly break everywhere, getting a pedi/manicure.
Most midwives will suggest going with the flow, resting as much as possible (if you only could!), and remember all this preparation work usually means labour is over before you know.
#5: Cervix Lighting Strikes
You’re minding your own business (crying into your tea because you’re STILL not in labour) and without any warning a lightning bolt of pain jabs you in the place you can only assume is your cervix. When you’ve scrapped yourself off the ceiling, you wonder whether the baby is dancing a tango on your cervix with stilettos on.
Prelabour is doing some work on the inside, you just can’t see it. The cervix needs to soften and thin so it can then dilate. Thinning or effacement means the cervix is beginning to stretch and this can cause sharp, shooting pains, cramping sensations, dull aching. There are also a lot of nerves in the area where your baby’s head is and pressure on these late in pregnancy can cause some pain as well.
#6: Not Knowing If You’ve Peed Or….
It’s the age old problem when you are heavily pregnant – did my waters just break or did I accidentally wee?
Most women have what’s known as stress incontinence during late pregnancy. This means leaking some urine when they lift heavy objects, sneeze, cough, laugh or exercise. Your baby’s head is pushing down on your bladder and you feel like you’re either constantly coming or going to the toilet.
If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with leaking waters or wee, pop a panty liner on and see if you can control the flow or not. If your waters are leaking a panty liner won’t be adequate to contain the fluid and you’ll need to change it more than once. Amniotic fluid doesn’t smell like urine, more like semen. If you’re unsure, call your midwife.
#7: Being Sent Home From Hospital
So you’re sure it’s the real thing and have gone into hospital, convinced you’re at least 4cm, maybe even 5cm dilated. Only to be told by the midwife you aren’t in labour yet and to go home and rest. You really don’t like that midwife right now and feel the teeniest bit embarrassed about showing up like you were about to push out a baby right then. And you really want to just howl and cry and demand they get the baby out RIGHT NOW! See our article, “Sorry, You're Not In Labour“.
Prelabour can be confusing even to women who have been through birth before. We often have pressure on us to give birth by a certain date (induction looming, parents in law flying in from overseas, babysitter going on long vacation after due date) and it’s possible to convince yourself labour is happening when it isn’t.
Remember your midwife has seen it all and then some. At some point in the future this will all be a distant memory and you will be on the way to meeting your baby. Promise!
Recommended Reading: See our articles, 8 Tips For A Low Stress Early Labour At Home, What Causes Labour To Start and How To Bring On Labour Naturally – 11 Natural Methods.