The feeling of anticipation leading up to labor can be very overwhelming, especially if you’ve never been through it before. It’s normal to want to know when you’re going into labor. So how can you tell? In this article, we will cover classic signs of labor, early labor, false labor, and stages of labor.
Classic Signs of Labor
Being armed with the information on how to know when you’re going into labor will make you feel more confident about going through the process. One of the first signs that your body is preparing for labor is feeling your baby drop, also called lightening. After this, the baby’s head will be much deeper in your pelvis. That can occur from a few weeks to a few hours before labor.
You may also notice an increase in vaginal discharge. It may be slightly pink in color. This is called show. It is actually a sign that the cervix has begun to dilate, as the thick mucus plug that once accumulated at the cervix moves down through the vagina. This can occur between days or hours before labor, or sometimes not at all.
If Your Water Breaks, Are You in Labor?
Almost every time labor is portrayed in movies and on television, the penultimate moment includes the mother-to-be’s water breaking. And while your water will indeed likely break during labor, it’s not always a reliable–or even well-noticed–indicator of imminent labor.
The “water” here is actually a protective sac of amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby during pregnancy. Usually, as labor begins, this sac breaks and you’ll notice either a resulting rush of fluid or a slow (and perhaps easy to miss) trickle. If you notice your water break, you should go to the hospital or contact your OBGYN or midwife because, in all likelihood, labor has begun.
But there are a couple of caveats:
- Your water breaking does not mean delivery is imminent–but it could be! You could be in the early stages of labor, which could last for a number of hours. Or your body could be ready to deliver in the next few minutes! That’s why it’s recommended that you check in with your OBGYN or midwife when your water breaks.
- You may be ready to deliver before your water breaks. Some women will experience labor before the water breaks on its own. In those cases, your OBGYN may intentionally break your water using a special tool–either to induce labor or to speed up your delivery when labor is progressing too slowly.
The contraction of the uterus sometimes leads mothers to believe that they are going into labor; however, when this happens before true labor begins, it is called false labor. Also known as Braxton Hicks contractions, they are normal, but can still sometimes be uncomfortable.
There are ways to tell the difference between false labor and actual labor. First, irregular contractions are a sign of false labor, as are shorter (45 seconds or less) ones. In true labor, contractions have a progressive quality and develop a pattern with increasingly regular intervals and begin to take place with increasing frequency over time. The strength of the contractions will also increase in labor, whereas in false labor, the strength of the contractions is sometimes weak and sometimes strong.
Another way to tell is where you feel the contractions. If you feel them in the front, where your uterus is, it may indicate Braxton Hicks. If your contractions feel like they begin toward the back of you and move towards the front, it indicates true labor.
If you’re still not sure, moving around can help you figure out if you’re in false or true labor. In false labor, the contractions will typically subside when you begin moving around. In true labor, the contractions will likely increase in frequency and strength no matter what you do!
Early labor is the first stage of labor, before the labor pattern becomes active. Every labor is different, but typical hallmarks of early labor are contractions that are not yet consistently every 3-4 minutes apart, lasting a minute or longer, and too intense to talk or maintain current activity through. Although it’s common to feel like you want to do something during this stage, the best thing you can do to help yourself along in early labor is to hydrate, eat something, and try to rest.
The duration of this phase of labor is highly variable, but with a first pregnancy can last hours to days, during which you will likely experience about 5 to 30 minutes between contractions. Your water typically won’t break during this time. During early labor, it’s important to conserve resources. Avoid the urge to rush to the birth center or hospital; instead, touch base with your midwife or doctor as directed for advice on how to make yourself more comfortable and when to plan follow-up. Massage, heat packs, showers, and baths are great relaxation tools during this phase.
One of the most common–but often overlooked–signs of labor is back pain. Sometimes known as “back labor,” back pain that doesn’t go away could be a sign that you’re in labor. It’s a sign that’s easy to miss because pregnancy itself can be rather trying for your back muscles. After all, carrying a baby around all day every day puts an enormous strain on your posture and your core, so a sore back doesn’t seem at all unusual.
However, back pain that doesn’t go away when treated with massage or cold or hot packs may in fact be an indication that contractions have begun. If you’re having back labor, the pain will usually begin in your lower back and slowly work its way around towards the front of your body. There may also be other indications that you’re experiencing labor (such as those described above).
Stages of Labor
It can be easier to understand labor once it’s divided into its three stages. The first stage of labor includes early labor, active labor (commonly defined as 6 cm or more of cervical dilation with regular, strong contractions), and the transition phase (where you progress from 8- 10 cm cervical dilation).
The second stage is all about moving your baby down through the vaginal canal, and the special time where you give birth to your baby. Your baby being born concludes the second stage of labor.
The third and last stage of labor is when you deliver the placenta. This stage typically lasts anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes and begins with small contractions and a small gush of bleeding that indicate your placenta has separated from the uterine wall. Once the placenta has delivered you’ve made it through all the stages of labor.
As you near your due date, we don’t expect you to know exactly where you are in the labor process, but it’s important to know the answer to this question: When should I call my doctor or midwife about labor? Ask your practice for their specific recommendations. Knowing the cues to look for from your body will give you greater confidence in approaching the labor and birth process.