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True Labor or False Labor? Here's How to Tell

Medically reviewed by Mary Rani Cadiz, MD · Obstetrics and Gynecology

Written by Maridol Ranoa-Bismark · Updated Apr 28, 2021

True Labor or False Labor? Here's How to Tell

In the last few weeks of pregnancy, you have most probably started preparing for labor and the arrival of your newborn.  The contractions will come, if they have not started yet.

How can you tell if you are undergoing true or false labor? Fortunately, you can spot the telltale signs. 

True Labor Versus False Labor

true labor versus false labor

A true labor versus false labor chart highlights the differences between the two.

False labor, or Braxton Hicks contractions, typically happen before true labor. It is normal to experience false labor, or irregular uterine contractions. 

Braxton Hicks contractions involve intermittent abdominal hardening. Here are some of its key characteristics. 

  • Occur far apart from each other
  • Do not last long 
  • Do not feel stronger as time goes by 
  • Usually occurs when you change your position and stop when you take a rest

True labor, on the other hand, varies from mother to mother. But there are common denominators. 

These include the following: 

  • True labor feels uncomfortable.
  • Your back and lower abdomen ache.
  • There is pressure in the pelvic area.
  • The sides of your body and thighs also ache. 
  • Some liken the true labor contractions to strong menstrual cramps. Others think of them as strong waves that resemble diarrhea cramps.

    Braxton Hicks Contractions

    When it comes to determining whether your little one is arriving or not, it’s best to monitor and evaluate your symptoms. This true labor versus false labor chart can help you decide if it is time to head to the hospital for delivery. 

    Braxton Hicks (False Labor)

    • Irregular contractions that are few and far between.
    • Contractions may cease once you start walking, resting, or change position.
    • Weak contractions. 
    • Contractions in front of your tummy.
    • Do not cause cervical dilation.

    True labor

    • Regular contractions lasting 30 to 90 seconds each, that get closer together as   time goes by.
    • Contractions proceed no matter what you do and not relieved by a change in position. 
    • Regular contractions that grow consistently stronger.
    • Contractions seem to start above the abdomen and from the mid-back before moving up front.

    You may refer to this true labor versus false labor chart to help you figure out if you are undergoing true or false labor.

    What causes false labor?

    Braxton Hicks contractions or false labor frequently comes at the heels of a long, stressful day, especially if you have been physically active. The exact reason as to why this happens is unknown but it is usually associated with increased physical activity, when the bladder is full, after sexual activity, and when the woman is dehydrated. Chronic stress causes lasting changes in your body’s vascular system, hormones, and ability to withstand infection. As such, chronic stress can also bring about false labor, even if the baby has not reached full term. 

    How long after false labor is true labor expected?

    False labor lasts a few hours to a few weeks before true labor starts. You can refer to your true labor versus false labor chart to check your symptoms. It is best to consult your doctor about what to do if you experience false labor in the latter weeks of pregnancy. 

    What procedures will the doctor follow to check labor pains?

    If you are experiencing true labor, contact your doctor and head to the hospital. Obstetricians admit women whose cervix is at least 4 cm dilated. The doctor will then check for: 

    • The effacement, or length of the cervix. When labor starts, muscles at the upper uterus gradually occupy the cervix. What was once a long, firm structure turns into a paper-thin opening for the baby to emerge. It is therefore important to assess cervical effacement.
    • The baby’s position. Is the baby in the normal position, with their head emerging first from the birth canal? Are the baby’s buttocks the first to come out (breech)?  Or is it their foot (footling) or shoulder/arm (transverse)? Is the baby’s head firmly positioned in the mother’s pelvis?  Is the amniotic sac, or the baby’s bag of water, intact?

    After evaluating all conditions, the doctor will then issue an admitting order sheet, which the mother, her partner or any other relative must keep with him/ her at all times, since labor can kick off any time. 

    The mother, her partner or any other relative must bring this piece of paper to the emergency room, which is open 24/7.  Her obstetrician will be informed of the mother’s presence as soon as possible.

    The Four Stages of Labor and Delivery

    How do you time your contractions when true labor begins?

    All you need is a watch or clock to check when it is time to expect your baby.  You may also use a timer.

    Start counting from the start of the first true labor contraction to the next.  Just remember the  4-1-2 rule, that tells you:

    •       Contractions occur every four minutes. 
    •       Duration of each contraction is one minute. 
    •       This pattern repeats itself over at least two hours. 

    At this point, active labor begins. Your baby is on his or her way.

    If you are feeling contractions, monitor them closely and refer to your true labor versus false labor chart. When the right time has finally come,  you can grab your maternity bag, go to the hospital, and get ready to welcome your newborn with the confidence. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mary Rani Cadiz, MD

    Obstetrics and Gynecology

    Written by Maridol Ranoa-Bismark · Updated Apr 28, 2021

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