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Signs You Are in Labor

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.

RELATED: What Not to Say (or Do) to a Woman in Labor

True Contractions Begin

Contractions can 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

When the 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 amniotic fluid.

More Labor Signs

It's possible 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 few days.

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 labor.

RELATED: Ways to Naturally Induce Labor

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."

Photograph by: Pilin_Petunyia/iStock/Getty Images

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