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How will I know if I'm approaching labor?

Dr. Deborah Raines, MSN
Nursing Specialist

Every woman’s experience is different but there are some premonitory signs and symptoms of labor which are experienced by many women. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Lightening: with the movement of the fetus into the bony pelvis, woman often experience a feeling of being able to breathe more easily as well as increased urinary frequency and pelvic discomfort.
  • Bloody show: The mucous plug that was a protective barrier in the cervical canal during the pregnancy is expelled.
  • Nesting: Many women report an unexpected spurt of energy 24 to 48 hours before the onset of labor. Women who were fatigued during the last trimester of their pregnancy sudden find themselves cleaning the house and preparing meals for the upcoming month.
  • Gastrointestinal changes: Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and indigestion are often experienced before the onset of labor.
Martha Kathleen Dwight
Nursing Specialist

True labor is characterized by regular contractions that are at least five minutes apart, get longer, stronger and closer together, and are worse when walking. True labor contractions may continue even when sleeping and sedation will not stop these contractions. True labor is also characterized by cervical change.

Time them. Use a watch or clock to keep track of the time one contraction starts to the time the next contraction starts, as well as how long each contraction lasts. With true labor, contractions become regular, stronger, and more frequent. Braxton Hicks contractions 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. This won't happen with true labor. Even with these guidelines, it can be hard to tell if labor is real. If you ever are unsure if contractions are true labor, call your doctor.

This answer is based on source information from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Administration Specialist

Labor continues the process begun at conception. The finely tuned biological system that nurtures developing babies guides labor as well. Just before labor begins, your body readies itself. The joints in your hips and pelvis relax and open, ligaments soften, and the baby may drop deeper in your pelvis. Toward the end of pregnancy—for some women, even earlier—you may occasionally feel a painless tightening of your uterus, the Braxton-Hicks contractions.

These normal "practice contractions" do not cause your cervix to dilate, or open (something it will do to about 10 centimeters—about 3.5 inches—by the time you push the baby out into the world). You may also feel increased pressure in your pelvis and on your bladder as the baby drops lower, settling deeper into your pelvic cavity. This process of dropping—or "lightening," as it is also called—is not an indication that labor is about to start. If you are a first-time mother, you may still be a month away from delivering your baby, but dropping is one sign that your body is preparing for childbirth. After dropping, you may find it easier to breathe, but at the same time, you may have to urinate more often (because the baby is resting closer to your bladder) and walking can become painful.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth

More About this Book

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth

ALL THE INFORMATION YOU NEED TO MAKE WISE DECISIONS ABOUT YOUR PREGNANCY AND THE BIRTH OF YOUR CHILD -- FROM THE EDITORS OF THE CLASSIC "BIBLE OF WOMEN'S HEALTH" Pregnancy and birth are as ordinary...
Dr. Darria Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine Specialist

It can be hard to tell the difference between the Braxton-Hicks contractions you may feel in your 3rd trimester and true labor contractions, so here are some signs to look for:

  • You may feel the baby move lower or “drop” in your abdomen.
  • Your water breaks. In the movies, this always is shown as a huge “gush” (remember Miranda in “Sex and the City”?), but in reality, it often is much smaller—even a trickle.
  • True labor contractions are typically much more severe than a Braxton-Hicks contraction, and start to get more frequent over time. 
  • Also, unlike Braxton-Hicks contractions, contractions of true labor don’t go away if you rest, and also become more painful and stronger over time. 
  • If you’re in doubt, don’t try to figure it out yourself, because it can be very tough to know. If you have any question, call your doctor or midwife and discuss your symptoms with them. While you’re waiting for them to call back, time and record your contractions, so you can share that info with them.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.