So maybe today’s the big day. You feel your uterine muscles fluttering uncomfortably. Sometimes it’s a light sensation, but other times it gets a bit painful. “This must be what labor pains feel like,” you think. You realize it’s a long drive to the hospital and you want to get there before the baby starts coming out.
Excited and just a little panicky, you drive to the hospital where you’re put under observation. The pains go on and off until, after a while, they disappear completely. You begin to wonder if something is wrong with you or your baby. “Do I need to be induced?” you ask your gynecologist.
"No," she tells you. "You’ve just had Braxton-Hicks Contractions. You’re not in labor yet. Maybe you will be in a few days. For now, you can just go home to rest." It was just a false alarm, after all, but exactly how do you tell false alarms from the real thing?
Well, there are several things you can look for to know that you’re in labor. Some of them are markers to let you know that labor is imminent, while others are definite signs that labor is underway.
15 Early Warning Signs
While these signs don’t necessarily mean you’re going into labor right away, it probably means you’re pretty close. One of the early signs is lightening, or when your baby drops into the lower portion of your pelvis, in a position ready for delivery. For first-time mothers this can happen up to four weeks before actual labor. If you’ve had children before, this may not happen until labor starts.
Some mothers notice that their joints become a bit more flexible at this time. Basically, your body is preparing you for the expansion of your pelvic bones during pregnancy. Again, these don’t necessarily mean you’re going into labor immediately. When they do happen, though, it’s best to be on the lookout for the next few weeks.
About two days before labor starts, your muscles begin to loosen up to get ready for the final push. This includes your intestinal muscles, so you might expect frequent bouts of diarrhea at this time.
Some doctors believe that your body deliberately empties itself of intestinal contents so that there’s enough room for the baby in that part of the body. This might make you a bit dehydrated, causing tiredness and irritability. Drink plenty of water while you’re waiting.
13 Mucus Plug
The mucus plug is basically a thick blob of mucus, sometimes streaked with blood that has nestled in the opening of your cervix to protect your baby from the outside world. This is a sure sign that your cervix has begun to soften.
However, do note that sometimes the mucus plug dislodges a few weeks ahead of time. If this happens, you might want to wait until you begin to feel contractions before you head to the doctor.
12 Bloody Show
This is blood-tinged mucus that may show up as a pinkish stain or a bit of blood on your panties. Typically, this occurs after the mucus plug has lodged loose, causing cervical blood vessels to bleed a bit and mix with your vaginal discharges. This can signal that the first stage of labor is about to begin. However, some women do have it a few weeks in advance.
If the “show” is more than a few drops of blood or if it's bright red in color, consult your doctor right away as this may be an early sign of labor complications.
11 Increasing Vaginal Discharge
You may notice that a few days before labor, you will have increasing vaginal discharge. In some women, this discharge is stickier than usual, while others report that it's thinner. This is your body’s way of lubricating your vaginal canal so that your baby can slide through fairly easily.
10 Severe Back Pain
Labor pains typically go from the back to the front, or from your waist down to your feet. Some women, however, experience something called back labor. This simply means that the back of your baby’s head is putting pressure on your lower spine. This causes severe lower back pain just prior to labor. Because this pain is so distracting, it sometimes comes to the forefront, more so than uterine contractions.
If you’re having severe back pains late into your pregnancy, watch out for other signs that you’ve already begun labor.
9 Contractions that Move Down
You’ll feel cramping that starts with your waist or lower back that moves down to your legs. In comparison, Braxton-Hicks contractions just feel like really bad menstrual cramps that usually don’t go down to your legs. In a way, this is your body’s way of pressing your baby down your birth canal.
8 Getting Stronger
The easiest way to tell true labor from Braxton-Hicks contractions is that they get stronger over time. False labor often has slight variations in intensity, although mostly they aren’t painful and aren’t going to get painful over time. With true labor, however, the contractions get more and more intense as time passes.
7 It’s Not Going Away
Typically Braxton-Hicks contractions go away when you walk or change position. With true labor, however, contractions will not disappear no matter what you do. In some cases, the cramps will even intensify when you attempt to move.
Labor pains are typically regular in nature. That is, the time in between contractions as well as the duration of the contractions, are similar depending on the stage of labor you’re in.
In the early stage of labor, each contraction usually lasts about half a minute with intervals of about 5 minutes to half an hour in between. As you progress through labor, the contraction duration progressively increases while the interval decreases. Once you reach active labor, contraction duration will have increased to a minute with durations of only 5 minutes in between. By the transitional stage, contraction duration will be up to 90 seconds with only 30-second durations in between.
It helps if your partner times the duration and interval between contractions. If they are regular and increasing, then it’s time to see the doctor.
5 Your Water Breaks
This means that your amniotic sac, has ruptured. Sometimes it comes as a burst of fluid, although most of the time it’s just a small trickle of clear fluid. This is a surefire sign that labor should begin within 24 hours. If you’re experiencing intense, regular contractions, though, don’t wait for your water to break. Sometimes it doesn’t break until well into labor.
If the fluid that flows out is brown or greenish instead of clear, call your doctor immediately. Brown or green amniotic fluid means that your baby has had meconium, or a bowel movement. Meconium before delivery increases the risk for infection and aspiration pneumonia. This warrants immediate treatment.
4 Overwhelming Contractions
During the later stages of labor, contractions may become overwhelming. Some mothers may even describe it as unbearable.
There will come a point, however, where there is an unbearable urge to push. Do remember that it’s not advisable to push during the interval between contractions. This may cause injury to your baby’s fragile head. At this time, you should already be at the hospital or, at least on your way there. The next best thing is to make sure that a birthing professional is close by.
3 Pressure on Your Pelvis
As your baby moves downward, you may feel increasing pressure on your back and pelvis. Some mothers interpret this as an urge to defecate. When you’re really close to delivery, however, healthcare professionals will insist that you defecate in a bedpan and never in the toilet.
Since the pressure of delivery can be mixed up with the sensation of an impending bowel movement, some mothers find that bearing down will push the baby out instead of feces.
2 The Vaginal Exam
One way for you and your doctor to check how far you’re progressing through labor is through a vaginal examination. Health care professionals do this to check the effacement and dilation of your cervix, which are important indicators of the stage of labor you’re in. If your baby has started moving down, they will also be able to assess the baby’s condition through this exam.
Your doctor, a nurse or a midwife will first put on sterile gloves. She will then insert her fingers into your vagina to measure the cervical dilation and feel its consistency. This is an uncomfortable procedure for most women and so most health care professionals only do it when absolutely necessary.
At around the second stage of labor, your baby’s head will begin to show through your vagina in a process called crowning. At this point, you will feel a burning sensation around your vagina. By this time, you should already be safe and comfortable in a hospital or in the care of a health care provider.
However, in some very rare cases some women don’t realize that they’re in labor until crowning has begun. These women often interpret the labor pains as menstrual cramps or a stomachache and so they get ignored. Now, this is probably not going to happen to you as most experience the labor process in full. If it does, however, do seek the help of a professional right away.
With labor coming on, you can be glad that the waiting has ended and you will soon be able to hold your new baby in your arms finally.