When a woman is waiting for her baby to arrive, she gets very excited and looks for all the possible signs of labor. The end of the third trimester prepares expectant moms for labor because it makes us not only extremely anxious to see our feet again, but to want to nap after taking five steps.
It can be tricky to separate real labor from false labor though, and that's why many women who are ready to meet their babies get a little frustrated. Some of the signs sound the same, and when it's close to or past the due date, mom assumes contractions mean it's time to head to the hospital. But hold those horses a minute.
While there are some definitive signs that what mom's experiencing is labor, there are subtle ways mom can figure out when she is not. It's all about details, and when mom is in pain it can be hard to pay attention to the nitty-gritty. However, that's what she has to do to figure out the truth of what her body is trying to tell her.
Braxton Hicks contractions, strange discharge, and pain in general are all a part of pregnancy, but when do they cross the line and mean labor and the arrival of a child? If mom is having a hard time figuring that out, she should call her doctor. She can also check out this list that will help her determine the real from the false. It's all in the details.
14 False Labor: Unpredictable Contractions Equal...Nothing
Braxton Hicks contractions actually start occurring very early in pregnancy, but we don't feel them until closer to the middle of pregnancy or in the third trimester. They are sometimes painless but not always, and they aren't as painful as the contractions we have during labor. However, it's hard for a new mom to tell the difference.
One way to understand what kind of contractions are taking place and if they're leading to labor is to see how predictable they are. Contractions should start following a pattern, such as being 10 minutes apart, if mom is in labor. Contractions that are erratic and don't have a rhythm are a sign of false labor.
Mom can either time her own contractions, have someone else time them, or use one of the many online tools that let's mom put in her contraction start and end times. This will help her figure out whether to grab her bag and go to the hospital or try to get some rest until the false start ends.
13 Real Labor: Diarrhea Does Mean Labor Is Ahead
Mom probably doesn't want to think about being on the toilet during labor, but it's likely she will be. Why should she be happy about that? Because diarrhea is a sign of labor!
The early part of labor offers prostaglandins released in large doses so contractions will commence. This will help the cervix soften and open, but it will also mess with mom's bowels. Prostaglandins activate the bowels in a very extreme way, so mom may find herself on the toilet quite a bit, likely suffering from diarrhea.
This is not a sign to ignore. Many women found that the emptying of their bowels was one of the first solid signs of their bodies getting ready for action. Mom should track that potty action and let dad know to be ready to head to the hospital. This is a sign of the real thing.
12 False Labor: No Progress, No Baby
Besides being regularly spaced apart, contractions should also progress. Braxton Hicks contractions often stay the same, moving along in an unpredictable pattern and causing about the same level of discomfort for mom.
Contractions leading to labor will move closer together, so mom will notice her contractions that were 10 minutes apart become eight minutes apart, and then six minutes apart. They will also last longer, which isn't a lot of fun for mom since that is a longer time for her to have to endure pain.
About that pain, it will get worse. Contractions that lead mom to the main event will get stronger. Mom will find that they'll become harder to manage as they continue, so if mom notices half an hour into contractions that her contractions aren't following a pattern and aren't any worse than when they started, it's likely a false alarm.
11 Real Labor: Water Breaks, Get Ready For Labor!
The rupture of membranes is a sign that mom needs to head to the hospital. Labor is starting, and without amniotic fluid, baby has to exit the womb. This is a situation where mom does not wait for contractions or anything else to happen.
Most people imagine water breaking as being a big gush of fluids, and it can be. However, it can also just be a bit of fluid dripping out slowly. It depends on the position of the baby. The fluid won't smell like urine, so that will be a sign that it's amniotic fluid.
The reason doctors want moms to come when the water breaks is because of something called a prolapsed cord. Though rare, the umbilical cord can try to exit the body before the baby, and if it kinks, it cuts off oxygen to the baby. This can be fatal for the baby, and doctors want to watch it once the water breaks.
10 False Labor: General Pain And Discomfort, Welcome To Pregnancy
Contractions before labor hurt in a specific way. Braxton Hicks contractions have been described as more of a general pain, and many women don't even use the word pain to describe them. They instead just say they experienced discomfort.
Discomfort is NOT labor. It may start that way, but contractions leading to labor will hurt, and the pain will travel around mom's body in a particular pattern that causes her to realize something is happening.
While Braxton Hicks may cause pain in mom's abdomen and back, she will usually have a hard time pinpointing how the pain travels and where it is the most intense. Plus, with Braxton Hicks the focus of the pain may change each time.
For first-time moms, this is not an easy call to make. Because some women experience painful Braxton Hicks contractions, it's easy to be fooled.
9 Real Labor: Contractions Are Regular, Oh Yeah It's Baby Time!
When mom confidently says her contractions are an equal amount of minutes apart, she's probably in labor. The number will change, with contractions that were 10 minutes apart becoming only five minutes apart, but the key is that many contractions in a row have the same amount of time between them for a while.
Mom will also notice progression, and her partner likely will as well. Since contractions will grow stronger and more painful, mom will probably start reacting differently to them. They will also last longer. This is going to cause mom to feel tired, but it's a sign of good things to come: a baby.
Though contractions can be hard to track, it is possible to get a read on them and determine that they are not Braxton Hicks but actual, leading-to-labor-now contractions. When this is determined, mom is in labor.
8 False Labor: Change Positions And Contractions Slow To A Halt
Moving while having contractions may not sound like fun, but it is an effective way to find out if mom is in true or false labor. Why? Because if contractions stop when mom changes positions, she is likely not in labor.
By that same rule, certain outside factors can start contractions, even Braxton Hicks. If mom hasn't been drinking enough and becomes dehydrated, she can have Braxton Hicks, so grabbing some water and seeing if things calm down is a good test. Intimacy can also kick start Braxton Hicks contractions, as can mom's bladder being too full.
If going to the restroom stops the contractions, labor probably isn't imminent.
Braxton Hicks are also good at striking at night, or we just notice them more when we're trying to rest and finally get still. That's why mom may have to move around and look for a different position to see if they will stop.
7 Real Labor: Bad Back Pain, Probably Back Labor
At this point it's easy to wonder how we're supposed to tell the difference between the back pain we've had the whole pregnancy and the back pain hitting us during labor. Basically, back pain during early labor is extreme. It's harsh and brutally painful, and it's a sign the real thing is happening.
For the 30 percent of women who suffer with back labor, it's even worse. When the baby heads into the birth canal with the back of their head against mom's spine instead of the face, back pain can occur. Babies can be delivered this way, but it's not the optimal position, and mom will struggle with back labor the whole time if the baby is in the wrong position.
It's not easy to get excited about back pain, but at least it's a sign that the end is near!
6 False Labor: Membranes In Tact, That Baby's Going No Where
Babies live in an amniotic sac filled with fluid during their time in the womb. When labor starts, this membrane sac may rupture which is what is meant by saying someone's water breaks. However, this sign is a bit tricky because many women have been in labor before their water broke. In fact, babies have been born within their amniotic sac! It's rare but not impossible.
However, if mom's water hasn't broken, she may question if real labor has begun, and that's fair. Water breaking is a definite signal that the real thing is underway, so the absence of this sign can leave mom in limbo.
Because water doesn't have to break for labor to start, mom shouldn't wait if other signs are in place. Strong contractions moving in a pattern and getting closer together are a good sign labor is trying to start. Water breaking would just let mom know for sure.
5 Real Labor: Discharge, Oh Yeah, Labor Is Coming
With everything going on down there during pregnancy, it's hard to know what changes we're supposed to pay attention to. However, certain discharge may be a red flag that labor is on!
Bloody show can occur with or without the mucus plug falling out as that may have taken place before, but bloody show near mom's due date is a good sign of labor. The pink discharge means the blood vessels in mom's cervix have started rupturing because the cervix is dilating. Dilating opens the door for baby to come out, so this is a good sign of labor.
In the absence of any other labor signs, should mom let her doctor know about this one? Yes. Plus, mom will probably feel contractions if her cervix is dilating. The contractions move dilation along.
4 False Labor: No Mucus Plug, No Bloody Show Means No Labor
The bloody show appears often after the mucus plug falls out, and the mucus plug keeps bacteria or anything else harmful from entering the uterus by plugging the cervix during pregnancy. When it's time for labor, the plug falls out, and mom will likely find a pink or brown discharge in her panties. Some will be from the mucus and some from the blood from the cervix that mixes with the mucus.
If the mucus plug hasn't come out yet, mom is probably not in labor. Even if the mucus plug has fallen out, mom can still be days or weeks away from labor since the plug can grow back. However, mom may go into labor hours after the bloody show appears. There's no way to tell.
The absence of the mucus plug can occur for another reason: it can fall out in pieces. While some women experience the entire plug coming out at once, others may not notice as it exits in parts.
3 Real Labor: Cervical Opening Dilates, Get Ready To Catch A Baby
Before the cervix dilates, it has to soften. Once dilation starts, the body is basically getting ready to open the door so baby can come through. Cervical dilation can be a sign of real labor, but it is also a process that can take weeks. A woman can be at two centimeters dilated for three weeks before she goes into labor.
There is no exact number for women to be considered in labor, though many practitioners won't give an epidural until mom is dilated to at least a four. Since pregnancy is different for every women, one woman may be at a four for 90 percent of her labor and then shoot to a ten in one swoop, while another woman may see her cervix dilate steadily over time.
A doctor or midwife will advise mom as to how dilated she is and let her know what stage of labor that puts her in.
2 False Labor: Mom Just Knows What's Up
Many women say nesting and an overall feeling of readiness invades their system when birth is imminent. When they finally start feeling those contractions and showing early signs of labor, they know it's the real thing. Early mommy instincts kick in, and they just know.
Other women don't. In fact, many women have a gut feeling that what they are going through is not the real thing, but they're not sure. They feel pain, they're uncomfortable, and they really want the pregnancy to be over so they can meet their child on the outside. For these reasons, some women try to convince themselves they are in labor when their gut is telling them they are not.
It's hard to trust instincts during a time like this, but if all the signs don't add up and mom has that defeated feeling that it isn't go time yet, it probably isn't.
1 Real Labor: Contractions Have A Pattern, Ouch! It's Baby Time
Not only do contractions hurt, they do it a certain way. Knowing the pattern will help mom know if she is in labor.
While Braxton Hicks feel like a tightening where mom's entire abdomen is involved, contractions that lead to labor usually start in mom's back. From there they travel to the front of the abdomen. They then head south to the groin area. Every region in the abdomen is usually affected, but not at the same time. This pain is extremely specific, unlike the generalized pain of Braxton Hicks.
Again, contraction pain is tricky. Even general tightening can be painful, and mom may feel shocks in different areas even if labor isn't real. If mom can't tell if it's the real deal, call the doctor. Going to the hospital then being sent home isn't the worst experience, but if contractions are following a pattern, it's likely mom will be there to stay.