Most parents-to-be hope for a speedy labor and a swift birth. Unfortunately, your labor may have other plans. So it can feel both uncomfortable and frustrating when labor goes on for days.
For most first-time birthing individuals, labor will usually last anywhere between 12-18 hours (only 4 to 8 hours of active labor). But there are several reasons why your contractions may last longer than that–a condition often called false labor or prolonged early labor. Medically known as prodromal labor, prolonged labor can happen for days or weeks–sometimes more even longer.
For birthing individuals, then, it becomes essential to know when this latent labor stage turns into active labor–and when you should be in contact with your birth team. Your OBGYN or Midwife will keep a close eye on your health and your baby’s condition to make sure the birth process goes as smoothly as possible–and you can look forward to welcoming a new member to your family!
Reasons Why Labor Goes on for Days
To a certain degree, your body is going to follow its own schedule when it comes to giving birth. For some individuals, the birth process happens rather rapidly. For others, labor may take some time. Generally, you’ll have no reason to expect labor to take longer than 20 hours.
So, why, then, do you hear stories about labor that continues for days? The answer is a condition called prodromal labor.
What is Prodromal Labor?
In popular culture prodromal labor is often referred to as “false labor,” but this isn’t really a good description (especially because “false labor” is often mistakenly used to describe Braxton-Hicks contractions–which are very different from prodromal labor). That’s because prodromal contractions are real contractions, even if birth can still be a few days (or weeks) off.
For most women, prodromal labor will occur during the last month of your pregnancy. Prodromal labor pains will usually be regular and can even grow in intensity. That’s why it’s not unusual to mistake prodromal labor for active labor–and why a phone call to your birth team can be a good idea!
Prodromal labor pains don’t necessarily mean your baby’s birth is imminent. Active labor could begin the next day or the next week (or, in some instances, the next month).
What Are the Symptoms of Prolonged Early Labor?
So how can you tell when you’re having prodromal labor or active labor? In many cases, making this distinction can be challenging at first. So if you have any doubt or hesitation, make sure to contact your birth team.
In general, however, the symptoms of prodromal labor will look something like this:
- Contractions that occur on a regular basis. For most people undergoing prodromal labor, contractions will be equally spaced. They may even occur at the same time on a daily basis.
- Contractions that occur less than every five minutes apart–though the frequency between the contractions will usually be consistent.
- Contractions that come and go.
- Contractions that grow in intensity or diminish in intensity.
- Slow dilation of your cervix.
Prodromal Labor vs. Braxton-Hicks Contractions
Because they both represent a kind of early contraction, prodromal labor is often confused with Braxton-Hicks Contractions. But the two are very different. Braxton-Hicks contractions are not caused by the same biological functions, and they do not present with any regularity. So how can you tell prodromal labor from Braxton-Hicks?
You can try the following:
- Notice the frequency between your contractions. Prodromal contractions tend to occur with regular frequencies. That’s not true of Braxton-Hicks contractions.
- Braxton-Hicks contractions can be minimized by relaxation or drinking and eating. If those don’t help your contractions, they may be prodromal in nature.
- If your contractions grow in intensity, they’re likely prodromal. Braxton-Hicks contractions are less regular, but they rarely grow in intensity.
- Braxton-Hicks contractions are indicated by a tight, regular sensation, but they aren’t known for being particularly intense.
- Prodromal labor can cause the cervix to dilate. This is not something that occurs with Braxton-Hicks contractions (admittedly, this might be challenging to document or observe at home).
- Braxton-Hicks contractions are like your body’s practice contractions. Prodromal contractions, however, are real contractions.
Prodromal Labor vs. Active Labor
Because prodromal contractions are, essentially, real contractions, you may find it difficult to know when your early labor transitions to active labor. Here’s what you’ll want to pay attention to:
- The time between contractions: If your contractions are growing closer together, it’s likely that you’re starting the active labor process.
- The intensity of your contractions: Likewise, if your contractions are growing more intense (and the growth in intensity is quite regular), then it’s likely you’re beginning the active labor phase.
- Whether your labor stops: If you have contractions for half an hour and then they stop, it’s likely you’re still experiencing prodromal labor. Active labor contractions will typically not stop .
Are There Risks Associated with Prolonged Labor?
The good news is that prodromal labor is not actively harmful to you or your baby. It may result in an extra trip to the hospital or a few extra phone calls to your birth team–but otherwise, early labor is fairly common and does not present special risks.
However, it’s not a stretch to imagine that when labor goes on for days or weeks, you’re likely to get a little uncomfortable or become tired. your prodromal labor is causing intense pain, that could be a challenge. Talk to your OBGYN or Midwife about the best ways to help manage that pain and remain as comfortable as possible. In most cases, prodromal labor on its own will not be an indication for Pitocin or for C-Section but it could warrant a visit to the office or hospital for evaluation and monitor how you and the baby are coping overall. .
Talk About Your Labor Plans
Everyone’s labor is going to be different. For some birthing individuals, active labor will take a few short hours. For others, contractions could occur for 20-24 hours or longer. And when labor goes on for days, coping may become more challenging.
You won’t know what kind of birth experience you’re in for until your own labor process begins. That’s why it’s essential to talk through the wide variety of possibilities with your OBGYN or Midwife. The more prepared you are for any circumstance, the fewer decisions you’ll have to make in the heat of the moment.