Going into labor rarely looks the same in real life as it does in the movies. Instead of your water breaking in a dramatic splash, it could happen as a trickle or need to be broken by your doctor. Contractions often start as a dull ache rather than sharp, obvious pain. And false labor symptoms make it hard to know when the big event is happening for real. Many signs indicate labor is coming, but not all women experience all of them.
be confusing because they're an indicator of both true labor and
"false" labor. During false labor, they're known as Braxton Hicks
contractions. Real contractions are often one of the first signs of labor.
About 88 to 90 percent of women experience contractions before their water
breaks, says Linda Worzer, a board-certified doula and birth educator who is
based in Dallas.
Braxton Hicks contractions don't cause cervical dilation, so they're not really
preparing you for delivery the way true contractions do. These false
contractions are typically sporadic. They don't intensify over time and are
eased when you change position.
"Contractions that get longer, stronger and closer together over
time" are true signs of labor, Worzer explains. They may be as long as 30
minutes apart at first, but should start gradually increasing in frequency.
Changing position won't lessen the discomfort of true contractions.
During a contraction, you may feel like you have menstrual cramps, gas pain or
a backache. The pain may move from your back to your belly or from your belly
to your back. Time each one and the breaks between them to figure out whether
they're true or Braxton Hicks contractions.
You Feel ... Different
For some women,
true labor doesn't start with any dramatic moment. You may just feel like
things are a little off. For instance, you might sense that your baby is moving
a little less than normal in the day before going into labor – but since
decreased activity can also be a sign of a problem, this is one sign that
should have you calling your doctor right away.
The nesting instinct can
become especially strong when labor begins, causing a burst of energy and a
desire to clean and prepare your home for the baby.
You may also experience something called lightening, which happens when your
baby's head drops down into your pelvis. Others may notice that you look
different once this happens, and you may need to urinate more often and be able
to breathe easier after lightening occurs. This process usually happens a few
weeks before labor for a first-time mom, but if this isn't your first baby, it
can immediately precede labor.
Your motherly intuition could kick in during labor too, says Worzer – you may
have a general feeling that something's different.
Your Water Breaks
amniotic sac that holds your baby breaks, it's a sure sign that labor is
starting. If your contractions don't start on their own, your doctor will
likely want to induce you at some point, because bacteria can infect your baby
once that protective sac is gone.
You may release a gush of water, but for many women, the sensation of the water
breaking is more like trickling urine. If the liquid is odorless, it's probably
More Labor Signs
that your doctor will know you're in labor before you feel any symptoms.
Effacement and dilation – the thinning of and opening of the cervix,
respectively – can only be measured by a medical professional. If your doctor
finds that your cervix is partially effaced and dilated at a routine exam,
you'll know that labor is coming soon, though not necessarily within the next
Once your cervix starts dilating,
the mucus plug can fall out, another sign that labor is close. Worzer describes
the plug as looking like "thick mucus tinged with a little blood, [as if]
you had a bad cold and blew your nose." You may also lose 1 to 3 pounds
right before labor, she says.
Diarrhea, a lingering backache and increased vaginal discharge can also precede
You may experience a combination of many labor signs in the days and weeks
before your little one arrives, or feel nothing until hours before the big
event. "Of course," jokes Worzer, "if you are jolted from sleep
in the middle of the night, find the sheets between your legs are moving, hear
a cry and pull back the sheet to see a newborn, you'll poke your partner and
say, 'Wake up! We missed the birth!' But that only happens in pregnancy dreams
. . . I think."