Practice makes perfect. This also seems to hold true for babies. The last few days have been marked by many practice contractions, or so-called "false labor". It's a misnomer. There is nothing false about it. More accurately, this stage is called "prodromal labor". It's basically a pre-labor phase before transitioning into what's known as "active labor".
The false contractions started a few days ago. I had about 42 contractions over a 3.5 hour time frame during the evening meaning that for about an hour, my contractions were 5 minutes apart. That's the guideline we've been giving by the hospital, that if contractions are 5 minutes apart for 2 hours, we should head on in. Or, if my water breaks.
Although there were a lot of contractions, I knew that this wasn't the true active labor. For one, the contractions didn't seem painful enough. Really, it was just a hardening of my entire uterus, making it appear oddly shaped as it outlined baby-boy's form.
Though not active labor, prodromal labor is actually more than just a Braxton-Hicks contraction (these occur earlier in the pregnancy, for some women). For instance, they may be quite a bit stronger, though not strong enough to take your breath away, apparently. In general, they shouldn't last longer than a minute or come more often than 7-10 minutes apart.
Yet, they are not the same as contractions during active labor. They only happen in the front, rather than starting at the back. They irregular, and there is no "bloody show", or loss of mucus plug. The key is progression. If the contractions don't get worse or become more and more frequent, it's not active labor.
That doesn't mean nothing is happening. According to one good website, prodromal labor has some real physical effects. The cervix is moving to an anterior position, softening and thinning. All of these things are preparations for active labor. It could also cause the cervix to dilate, and therefore it's possible to lose your mucus plug.
The advice during this stage is to rest, eat well, and conserve energy for the real thing. I've found it helpful to be a little less active. When I am more active, the contractions come more frequently and it can be a little tiresome to cope with every 7 or so minutes.
Apparently, prodormal labor can last "days" ... so we'll see. It's been a few days by now, but luckily I have been able to have long quiet periods. Some women experience this for weeks and can't sleep; mine are nowhere near that. The good news is that some sites report that this kind of pre-labor activity can help for the actual thing. I do hope so!
So for the meanwhile, no active labor yet, and no need to go to the hospital. Though we are, of course, actively preparing for little one's arrival.