Signs and Symptoms of Labor

Signs of Labor: What to Look Out For

Many pregnant women worry about whether they’ll know when they are in labor, and whether they'll miss the early signs of labor. Luckily, a woman's body almost always gives her the signals she needs and the inner wisdom to recognize them.

Common Labor Signs

Although every pregnancy is different and there is no definite set of events, some common, early labor signs include:

  • Lightening
    Your baby drops lower into your pelvis in the weeks and hours before labor. This is called lightening because the baby will not be pressing on your diaphragm as much as before, and you may feel lighter and find breathing a little easier.
  • Bloody Show
    You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked discharge called a bloody show. This is the mucus plug that sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It usually appears within the two weeks before labor, although it’s not always noticeable.
  • Rupture of Membranes/Water Breaking
    Within a day of delivery (or sometimes during active labor), the amniotic sac ruptures and releases the fluid inside. This is commonly called the water breaking. You could experience a gush of water or just a trickle. If your water breaks, notify your doctor or midwife.
  • Early Contractions
    The big tipoff that you're in labor is the start of regular uterine contractions. These feel like menstrual cramps or a low backache that comes and goes every 20 to 30 minutes, gradually becoming stronger and more frequent. When the contractions occur every three to five minutes, you’re in active labor. Time your contractions, or have someone time them for you.

Definitely call your doctor or midwife if you notice bright red bleeding (not pale pink or dark brown), if your water breaks (especially if the fluid is green or brown or has a foul odor), if your baby is less active, or you have a headache, vision problems, or sudden swelling. Also, call your practitioner if you think you are in preterm labor, which is when you go into labor before the baby is ready to be born.

What to Do When in Early Labor

Don’t panic if you only experience a few signs of labor approaching, because many women don’t experience or notice all of them. If you think you are in labor, call your doctor or midwife, whether it’s day or night. Report your symptoms of labor, and keep in mind that you may not need to go to the hospital immediately. Your doctor or midwife will give you guidance based on your labor signs and your individual situation.

Realizing you're in labor can bring feelings ranging from excitement to disbelief or apprehension. Try to stay calm and focused. Arrange to have your partner or friend with you to help record labor symptoms, keep you company, and get you to the hospital when the time comes.

How to Tell Real and False Labor Signs Apart

True Labor False Labor
Contractions are regular and follow a predictable pattern (such as every eight minutes). Contractions are irregular and unpredictable, occurring, for example, in intervals of ten minutes, then six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc.
You experience three types of progression: contractions become more frequent, longer, and stronger. No progression is seen over time in the closeness of the contraction intervals, length, or strength of the contractions.
Each contraction is felt starting at the lower back, radiating around to the front, low in the groin. Contractions are felt as a generalized abdominal tightening.
A change in activity or position will not slow or stop contractions. A change in activity or position may cause contractions to slow or stop.
There may be bloody show. There is usually no bloody show.
Your water may break. Your water doesn’t break.
Your doctor or midwife will notice your cervix softening, thinning, or dilating. No cervical changes occur.

You’ll have calculated your due date, but babies can arrive a little early. So, in the third trimester, get your hospital bag packed, stock up on diapers, and pick up some labor tips. Knowing you are prepared will help reduce anxiety when you notice those early signs of labor. You’re nearing the end of your pregnancy, and you’re about to bring your baby into the world. You can do this!

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