The 3 Major Signs of Labor, Plus More Subtle Signs

You’ve read the pregnancy books, you’ve attended classes at your hospital and you’ve heard every piece of advice (solicited or not!) for what to do when you’re going into labor. But do you know for sure when it’s truly the right time to head to the hospital? 

Before we get into it, let’s start with the definition of labor. The medical definition for labor is “the process of delivering a baby and the placenta, membranes, and umbilical cord from the uterus to the vagina to the outside world.” Fun, right? So, how does a pregnant woman know when this process is truly beginning?

3 Clear Signs of Labor

Three telltale signs indicate that a pregnant woman’s body is getting ready to deliver a baby:

  1. Contractions: First and probably the most noticeable is that you have strong and regular contractions. A contraction is when the muscles of your uterus tighten up and then relax. Contractions help push the baby out of your body. When you’re in true labor, your contractions can last from 30 to 70 seconds and come anywhere from  5 to 10 minutes apart. They’re often so strong that you can’t walk or talk during them, and they get stronger and closer together over time. You can also feel pain in your belly and lower back. This pain doesn’t go away when you move or change positions. 
  2. Mucus Discharge: Second, you have a bloody (brownish or reddish) mucus discharge, sometimes called “bloody show”. 
  3. Water Breaking: Lastly, your water might break. Your baby has been growing in an amniotic sac (the bag of waters) in your uterus. So if that sac ruptures, it’s definitely time to grab the bags that are packed by the door and head to the hospital. Note: not all pregnant women will experience their water breaking before labor.

More About Water Breaking

There are some misconceptions about water breaking before labor. The idea in most people’s heads is that it’s a sudden gush of water and that it’s the main sign of labor. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can either be a sudden gush or may be a small trickle that either occurs before or during labor. The differences between a trickle or a gush can be the result of disruption from the contractions typically associated with labor or the baby’s head essentially acting as a cork against the cervix.

Basically, the breaking of water before labor does not always occur. Sometimes, labor doesn’t start on its own. If you experience prelabor rupture, your doctor might stimulate uterine contractions before labor begins on its own, also known as induction. The longer it takes for labor to start after your water breaks, the greater the risk of you or your baby developing an infection. 

Subtle Signs of Labor

There are more subtle signs that you could be going into labor soon. These often happen earlier and might not even be noticeable. Keep in touch with your provider if you’re experiencing them. They include: 

  • Your baby drops or moves lower into your pelvis. This is called lightening. It means that your baby is getting ready to move into position for birth. It can happen a few weeks or even just a few hours before your labor begins. According to the American Pregnancy Association, this can be indicated by a change in appearance, a greater easiness for breathing and/or a newfound pressure felt on the bladder. 
  • You have an increase in vaginal discharge that’s clear, pink or slightly bloody. As we discussed earlier, many call this “bloody show.” It can happen a few days before labor starts or at the beginning of labor. 
  • At your prenatal checkup, your healthcare provider tells you that your cervix has begun to efface (thin) and dilate (open). Before labor, your cervix is about 3.5 to 4 centimeters long. When it’s fully dilated, it’s typically 10 centimeters. Once labor starts, contractions help open your cervix. 
  • You develop nesting instincts. Many pregnant women experience the strong sensation to get things organized in the home to get ready for baby. They might want to do things like cook meals or get the baby’s clothes and room ready. This is normal and more than fine, as long as you take it easy and don’t use all of your energy.
  • Soft bowel movements
  • Restlessness 
  • Difficulty sleeping 

Discuss these subtle signs with your physician. He or she will find it helpful to track your symptoms and can help you decide when it’s time to head to the hospital to deliver your baby.

At the end of the day, listen closely to your body and your instincts, and you will probably know when it’s time to head to the hospital for delivery. 

Listening to what your body is telling you has never been more important, so get familiar with these signs of labor and listen to your physician. 

Good luck on this incredible journey! You can do this, mama! 

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