3 Signs Labor Is About To Happen

These are the signs of labor to watch for.

When you're nearing the end of your pregnancy, every twinge, cramp, and hiccup can make you think you're about to go into labor. And with so much misinformation about the signs of labor just a Google search away, it's easy to get confused about what you're experiencing and go into a panic.

"I counsel women all the time about labor, and it wasn't until I went into labor of my own that I finally understood what it was really like," said Melissa R. Peskin-Stolze, MD, generalist OB-GYN and assistant professor of obstetrics & gynecology and women's health at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "Labor is a process...but every woman's process is different."

That said, labor does have a very clear definition characterized by some specific signs, Andrea Campaigne, MD, an OB-GYN who practices at Austin Regional Clinic, told Health. These are three early signs that labor is imminent.

Contractions Are Painful

You're not going to know without medical assistance whether or not your cervix is dilating, so pay attention to the pain. Are the contractions irregular, mild, and don't get stronger or closer together as time progresses? These are likely to be Braxton-Hicks contractions, named for the British doctor who first studied them.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are thought to be your body's way of warming up for the real contractions that open up your cervix for your baby's delivery. However, real contractions will feel different; they become stronger, more frequent, and more painful. While Braxton-Hicks contractions feel like a sudden tightening, then release, of your uterus, "labor pains move from front to back," Dr. Campaigne said.

Additionally, if you spent the day running around and you're having weak contractions now that you've settled down to relax, it's more likely to be false labor, Dr. Campaigne said. However, if the pain of contractions starts up in the middle of the night when you're in a relaxed state and they're bad enough to wake you, your body may be preparing for labor.

Shifting Positions Doesn't Ease the Pain

When you sit, stand, lie on your back, or otherwise change body position, contractions won't feel any better. The same would go for going on a walk, taking a bath or shower, or curling up on the couch to rest—if the contractions ease up after doing any of these, they probably were false labor. "If you can modify [the pain], it's not worth worrying about," Dr. Campaigne said.

Your Water Broke

When a pregnant individual's water breaks, it means the fluid-filled membranes of the amniotic sac have ruptured, so the baby can make its way out of the uterus and into the birth canal. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the fluid may be light (trickling) or heavy (gushing). Either way, "[t]he leaking would be constant, not something that would start and stop like urine," Dr. Peskin-Stolze explained.

Additionally, odor will not help you determine if your water has broken. "Odor is not how you should tell if you ruptured your membranes. A continuous leak is more telling," Dr. Peskin-Stolze added.

If you think your water has ruptured, you should go to the hospital. You might need antibiotics to protect the baby from a serious infection, and the doctors or midwives will need to confirm your baby's position in preparation for birth.

Signs That Don't Always Mean Labor Is Near

You Lost Your Mucus Plug—And It's Streaked With Blood

A little vaginal bleeding or seeing long strings of mucus—your mucus plug—coming from your vagina could suggest your cervix is dilating. Both of these can happen as much as a week or two before labor, as your cervix goes from completely closed to a bit open, Dr. Peskin-Stolze said. Your body needs to dislodge that mucus plug from your cervix to deliver the baby.

Your Baby Dropped

If this is your first baby, Dr. Peskin-Stolze said the baby might "drop" in your uterus, increasing vaginal pressure. This is known as lightening, per MedlinePlus. It's something that happens sometime before labor, and individuals who have given birth before may not experience lightening until labor has actually started.

When You Should Be Concerned

All pregnant people pay attention to how much—or how little—their baby is moving in there, even if those kicks to the ribs are totally uncomfortable. However, less movement is not a sign labor is impending, according to Dr. Campaigne. "There's the idea that the baby will start to slow down their movements as they're getting lined up in labor. We don't consider that normal. In fact, as OBs, we think that's a concerning sign," Dr. Campaigne said.

Additionally, apart from less movement of your baby, other events to be worried about are if you start having any vaginal bleeding (i.e., more than light spotting) or if you experience painful contractions that occur consistently within an hour's time and every 5 to 10 minutes—according to MedlinePlus. In those cases, you'll want to contact your healthcare provider or go to Labor & Delivery to be evaluated right away.

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