Is this labor or not?

  • Early labor comes on gently and doesn't pick up; 
  • Early labor comes... and then goes
  • Labor comes at night and leaves during the daylight; or 
  • Labor comes on strong and then stops. And tries to start again, only to stop again.

What's the deal? "Is my starter broken?" Why can't labor get rolling? Here's why...

There are variations in early labor patterns. Early labor is from 0-3 cm dilation by common childbirth education descriptions. Sometimes, 0-4 cm. Next comes active labor from 4-10 cm, including contractions, or surges, that come on stronger and more frequently and last longer. Read more in Comparing OA and OP Labor Patterns.
Prodromal labor is when the uterus contracts somewhat frequently, may be strong or mild, contractions usually aren't occurring with regular intervals, but can keep a woman on alert, can keep a woman awake, and certainly can keep everyone wondering when active labor will establish.

Typically, women are told that 

Labor begins gently, contractions may be 10-20 minutes apart and gradually grow closer and stronger. Once the cervix begins to change, to dilate, labor is considered to be starting. 

Women may be told that:

Early labor can stop without it being a matter of concern. In fact, its often considered quite normal. Interruptions in location (going from home to hospital, for instance) or people (the nosey neighbor, stressed family member or unfamiliar medical person) walk in or leave (partner, doula, supportive nurse, doctor, or midwife has to leave for some reason or end of shift). These can be thought of as psycho-social reasons for early labor to stop. These reasons are well known and talked about in childbirth classes, for instance.
Prodromal labor may start with the night and stop with the day. This is more common with pregnancies after the first, but can sometimes happen even with the first pregnancy. Non-dilating contractions seems more common with approaching storm fronts when the barametric pressure drops. WIth or without contractions, a woman is considered to be early labor if a woman's waters release (Spontaneous Rupture of the Membranes, SROM).

Women aren't usually told that 

Early labor can stop when the uterus gets tired after trying to fit the baby into the pelvis.
Which may be because baby isn't engaged yet. 
Often because baby is posterior and, in this case, the head may be deflexed (extended, chin up) and the forehead is resting on the pelvic brim, and not engaged.
Early labor with a breech baby can stop/pause when the baby is trying to tilt his or her waist to get the hips into the pelvis. 
The labor may stop at any point with any fetal position if the baby can't fit further down the pelvis and the uterus gets tired. 

Rest and the right maternal position will solve most of these. Go back to the First Principle, Balance, to make more room for the baby and once labor resumes, the baby may be able to fit the next time surges build up strong again.

Early labor comes on gently and doesn't pick up; 

Early labor comes... and then goes; or

Labor comes at night and leaves during the daylight:

Hormones increase at the end of pregnancy helping prepare for actual labor. A rhythm of coming on at night is often hormonally related. These "practice" contractions are often called Braxton-Hicks. My friend calls them "Squeezies." They can be painless and thought to be the baby moving or "balling up," or they can be quite intense making a woman feel that she will have having the baby that day. The thing is, these don't change the cervix. 
Don't be shy about checking in with your provider. Better safe than... surprised!


Labor comes on strong and then stops. And tries to start again, only to stop again.

Sometimes these are simply warm-up or practice contractions as described above. But when they begin in the daylight or after fetal movement, and don't change the cervix, then consider if the baby is 

  • Trying to change position, from posterior to anterior or breech to head down, for instance
  • Successful at changing position (though it may not be the position you hoped for, so check it out)
  • Trying to engage in the pelvis

Is baby Engaged?

Often early labor is long because the baby isn't engaged. The uterus tries to get the baby into the pelvis. 
Trying to start labor without attending to Balance as a first principle may look like this (a good list by Jennifaerie, but lacks the first Principle: Balance):


Dilated to 3 cm yet? 

But the big secret seems to be if the mother is 0-3 cm she is not technically in labor! If the mother was told that she needs a cesarean for "failure to progress" it better be for a better reason that a start and stop early labor pattern. There are health reasons that may apply to you that aren't listed here, of course! Many doctors and midwives do not know the techniques to help a baby engage. Again, read Flexion or a Tucked Chin.  And then see Will baby fit?
Prodromal labor and/or early labor have the job of building up the hormones of labor, softening the mother's lower uterine segment and cervix, and positioning the baby into the best fetal position possible for the room that's available. Make more room available with "Balancing Activities" in 3 Principles in Labor.

But what if the bag of water has released?

When the amniotic sac is open, and the water leaks out, there is an opening to the baby and the mother's insides. It can be worthwhile to get labor started before "too long." How long is too long varies greatly among providers and a mother's needs.
There is quite a bit of discussion on other articles to get your labor started through fetal positioning.
The techniques on this website have worked for many mama-baby pairs even when the water's released.
You are your baby are doing the best you can. Help your baby to help yourself.


A letter from a woman who can't tell if she is in labor or not, but thinks so.

“Hi, Gail, I really need some advice. i think i am in early labour, cramping, lots of irregular painful contractions, loose bowels i have been like this for nearly 3 days. I am getting frustrated because my back is really hurting too and I can't figure position of baby.

I have been told its posterior. I have been trying for days for a couple of hours each day to do all the exercises but nothing has changed except baby has been trying to move in the night.
I feel very tired because of the cramps at night i don't know how much longer i can go on for like this.”

My reply,

"Your baby's position isn't causing this type of back ache, rather your uterine position is. To help release the twist in your lower uterus, you can do a number of things.

At home:
Try a complete Forward-leaning inversion on the stairs with your chin tucked. Have a helper to guard you. Kneel at the top of a short flight of stairs and crawl your hands down about three steps. Brace your elbows on that step and keep your knees on the landing above the stairs. Your helper is below you with their hands on your shoulders. Hold this position for 30-seconds or three breaths. Keep your chin tucked.

"Lean forward during contractions with knees slightly bent, move as you instinctually feel such an urge to do so with the contractions. Straighten your legs between contractions occasionally to rest your legs. When you lay down, rRest forward. Lean over a ball or back of the couch when kneeling on the couch.


"Try the Abdominal Lift and Tuck with your belly DURING your contractions.



If you can see a body worker,

Receive a standing sacral release and an abdominal release from a myofascial release person, cranio sacral therapist or a chiropractor that is trained in myofascial release. The Webster Maneuver, done by Chiropractors with the additional training, is one form of release for the round ligaments.


For those crampy contractions that do not lead to labor, some women have tried these things:

  • Have a pot of red raspberry leaf tea (bulk not tea bag). The minerals in the tea seem to help reduce leg cramps and uterine “irritability.”
  • Chewable calcium. (I don't suggest an antacid with calcium because I worry about heavy metals and a further disruption of stomach acid.)
  • A shower or deep bath, lay on your side with a towel rolled up between your knees and thighs to relax your ligaments.
  • Have a perception change. Don't think of this as labor. Your hormones are revving up. The Red Raspberry Leaf tea will help. Mind you this isn't raspberry flavored black tea, it is the real Red Raspberry plant leaf.
  • Try and sleep and be in the moment.
  • Eat drink and let your mind go so you can sleep.
  • Review what your caregiver said about when to call, but let your mind get off the clock otherwise.

Caution, if contractions come before your baby is developed enough for it to be safe for your baby to be born

Before 37 weeks gestation or a week over 8 months, uterine contractions should not open the cervix. 

If you are having 4 or more contractions in an hour, or if they feel strong with downward pressure, back pressure, blood, or water coming from your vagina, call your provider or go to your provider or a hospital immediately. 

After you are past this crisis, drink plenty of pure water (I suggest 3 quarts daily, though 1 quart could be unsweetened red raspeberry leaf tea (the leaves not flavored black tea!), eat 4-6 protein servings a day, leafy green veggies daily, and a bit of salt-to-taste, as well as other healthy foods. 

Body work, particularly the standing sacral release may reduce premature contractions. But you must be in touch with your provider and don't wait hoping these will pass.