False labor can easily be mistaken for actual labor ("true labor"), especially if this is your first pregnancy. The easiest way to distinguish it from true labor is by assessing the type of cramps you or your loved one is having. False labor differs from true labor in the intensity and duration of the contractions, among other things.
Contractions or cramps that are irregular in their timing and don't get closer together or more intense usually do not mean you're in labor. These "practice" contractions often stop when you walk, move around, or change position -- and they're usually only felt in your abdomen (stomach). This is called false labor. These practice contractions, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions, are considered false labor because they do not cause any dilation or thinning of the cervix. It is your body's way of preparing for actual labor.
These contractions can start anytime during the third trimester, but are more noticeable during the last four to eight weeks of pregnancy. In the last month of pregnancy, these contractions may occur more frequently -- sometimes every 10 to 20 minutes -- and with greater intensity. It is important during the third trimester to distinguish between true labor contractions and false labor (Braxton Hicks) contractions.
The following sections explain how false labor contractions typically differ from true labor contractions.
Braxton Hicks Contractions
These contractions have the following characteristics:
- They don't get closer together
- They don't get stronger
- The contractions are usually only felt in the front
- The contractions ease up with activity and are relieved with change in position
- The cervix doesn't change with contractions.
Contractions that signal true labor have the following characteristics:
- They do get closer together and become more painful
- They get stronger
- The contractions start in the lower back and spread to the lower abdomen or vice versa
- They become more intense with activity and are not relieved with change in position
- The cervix thins and dilates.