Here Comes Baby! Signs and Symptoms of Labor
Find out how to tell the difference between real signs of labor and false alarms.
Many pregnant women expect a textbook-perfect labor. The obvious signs will announce that it's time; the overnight bag will be in the car and mom-to-be will arrive calmly at the hospital in plenty of time for the delivery of her newborn baby.
If childbirth is a new experience for you, learn the most common signs of labor and understand the difference between real contractions and false alarms. Even if you have had a baby previously, this may be a refresher for you since every birth is truly a new experience.
It’s important to talk with your doctor during one of your prenatal visits. You can discuss what to watch for and when to call your doctor if you think labor is beginning. Talk about what emergency signs to look for and what you should do if they occur, too.
What you may experience
When your body is getting ready to deliver, you may notice some bodily changes. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of labor are reviewed here. Some of the signs will be clear to you and some cannot be seen or felt, but will be determined by your doctor.
Lightening or dropped
As you get closer to your due date, you may notice a change in how you are carrying your baby. The terms “dropped” or “lightening” refer to when the baby settles lower into your pelvis, getting ready for birth. You may feel a clear change in the baby's position, or you may not notice any change at all. This happens more often in subsequent pregnancies as opposed to the first pregnancy.
Cervical changes and mucus
In the weeks leading up to labor, your cervix may go through changes. As your due date draws closer, you may have a discharge that is brown or slightly reddish mucus. This could be the mucus plug. This plug blocks the cervix during pregnancy. Losing your mucus plug may be a sign of changes in your cervix. As your body prepares for labor, your cervix becomes thinner, stretched and softer. This is called effacement. The cervix will also open up or dilate. During your final prenatal visits, your doctor can tell you how effaced and dilated you are. You will not notice these changes on your own. These changes can develop rapidly or very slowly over days.
Rupture of membranes (your water breaks)
This sign of labor is a result of the amniotic sac breaking. You may notice a slow drip, a trickle or even a rush of fluid. Some women are not aware when this happens. It could happen several hours before labor starts or not until you are well into labor.
- False-labor or Braxton Hicks contractions: Toward the last months of your pregnancy, you might be able to feel your uterus tensing and relaxing, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions may start as early as the second trimester of pregnancy but are more common during the third trimester. These contractions that may be painful are not in a regular pattern, and they taper off and go away. Some women find that a change in activity, such as walking or lying down, makes Braxton Hicks contractions go away. They may also occur more often at the end of the day.
- True labor contractions: During a normal labor, the contractions follow a regular pattern and increase in duration, intensity and frequency as labor progresses. At the start of true labor, your uterus tightens and releases in an effort to move the baby along through the birthing process. Each contraction lasts about 30 to 70 seconds and occurs every two to three minutes. The pain usually starts in your back and moves around to your front. Contractions can be very painful.
So, how can you tell if your contractions are true labor? Use a watch or clock with a second hand to keep track of the time one contraction starts to the time the next contraction starts. Also, time how long each contraction lasts. During normal labor, contractions become regular, stronger and more frequent.
Even with these guidelines, it can be hard to tell if labor is real. Remember, if you’re experiencing contractions and are unsure if they indicate that you’re in labor, speak with your doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor, as he or she can help you decide the next steps.
By Mary Small, Contributing Writer
For more information, please visit Optum's Health Library
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Your Pregnancy and Childbirth: Month to Month. 6th edition. Washington, DC: ACOG; 2015.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to tell when labor begins. Accessed: July 7, 2016.
Womenshealth.gov. Pregnancy. Labor and birth. Spot the signs of labor. Accessed: July 7, 2016.
March of Dimes. Get ready for labor. When baby is really on the way. Accessed: July 7, 2016.
Last Updated: July 7, 2016
The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs and to determine whether making a lifestyle change or decision based on this information is appropriate for you. Some treatments mentioned may not be covered by your health plan. Please refer to your benefit plan documents for information about coverage.