Is It Really Time? How You Can Figure It Out
This is my first baby, and I'm wondering, what is the difference between false labor and the real thing? How will I really know when it's time? - Kristine
David Barrere, MD answers:
False labor is a troublesome phenomenon to deal with because it can be as painful as regular contractions. False labor is a variant of Braxton-Hicks contractions, which I often describe as "warm-up" contractions.
The uterus is composed of muscle (smooth muscle). When any muscle is stretched, as is seen with a pregnant uterus, its tendency is to contract. Through mechanisms we don't quite understand, the placenta decreases the frequency and intensity of these contractions.
The major differences between false and true labor are:
1) Timing: False labor pains tend to be irregularly timed, and most often, the occurrence of the next contraction cannot be predicted. With true labor, the pains progressively get closer together and maintain a constant rhythm.
2) Length: A true contraction will last anywhere from 45 to 90 seconds. A false labor pain may last only 15 seconds, but can last 2 minutes or more.
3) Nature: A true contraction will cause the entire uterus to feel firm, whereas a false labor pain may be localized. A true contraction will start off mild, the intensity will mount, reach a peak, then fade.
If contractions come every 4 to 5 minutes (timed form beginning of one to the beginning of the next) and they continue for 30 to 45 minutes, false labor is quite unlikely. When in doubt, call your caregiver or your hospital's labor and delivery unit.