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, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when labor has started, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Every twinge, cramp, and hiccup during pregnancy can make you think about going into labor. You may even be worried about if you could be in labor without knowing it, otherwise known as silent labor—for example, one of the anecdotal signs of silent labor is painless contractions.

With so much information about the signs of labor being just a Google search away, it's easy to become confused about your experience and panic.

"I counsel [people] 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," explained Melissa R. Peskin-Stolze, MD, generalist OB-GYN and assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "Labor is a process [...], but every [person's] process is different."

That said, labor does have an unequivocal definition characterized by some specific signs, Andrea Campaigne, MD, an OB-GYN who practices at the Austin Regional Clinic in Texas, told Health.

Here's what you need to know about the three early signs of imminent labor, as well as signs that do not necessarily indicate labor and what to do if you're concerned.

Contractions Are Painful

You're not going to know without medical assistance whether 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? Those are likely Braxton Hicks contractions—named after John Braxton Hicks, an English physician who identified the sign of false labor during the 19th century.

Braxton Hicks contractions are thought to be your body's way of practicing for the real contractions that open up your cervix during labor, per the Office on Women's Health. However, real contractions will feel different—typically stronger, more frequent, and more painful than Braxton Hicks contractions. 

While Braxton Hicks contractions feel like a sudden tightening, then release, of your uterus, "labor pains move from front to back," explained Dr. Campaigne.

Additionally, if you spend the day running around and then have weak contractions after settling down to relax, it's more likely to be false labor, noted Dr. Campaigne. However, if painful contractions start during the night, nasty enough to wake you, your body may be preparing for labor.

Shifting Positions Doesn't Ease the Pain

Contractions won't feel any better when you sit, stand, lie on your back, or change body position. The same goes for walking, taking a bath or shower, or curling up on the couch to rest.

"If you can modify [the pain], it's not worth worrying about," explained Dr. Campaigne. So, if contractions ease up after doing any of those activities, they probably are a sign of false labor. 

Your Water Breaks

When your water breaks during pregnancy, the amniotic sac ruptures. The amniotic sac, filled with protective fluids, encloses the fetus during pregnancy. It ruptures during labor so the fetus can exit the uterus and make its way through the birth canal. According to the 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," explained Dr. Peskin-Stolze.

Additionally, the odor will not help determine whether your water has broken. 

"Odor is not how you should tell if you ruptured your membranes. A continuous leak is more telling," added Dr. Peskin-Stolze.

If you think your water has broken, you should go to the hospital. You might need antibiotics to protect the fetus from a severe infection, and the healthcare providers will need to confirm the fetus's position to prepare for delivery.

Signs That Don't Always Mean Labor Is Near

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

Slight vaginal bleeding or seeing long strings of mucus—your mucus plug—coming from your vagina could suggest your cervix is dilating, per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library

Dr. Peskin-Stolze noted that bleeding or losing your mucus plug could happen as much as a week or two before labor as your cervix opens slightly. Your body must dislodge the mucus plug from your cervix to deliver the infant.

Your Baby Dropped

If this is your first pregnancy, Dr. Peskin-Stolze said the fetus might "drop" inside your uterus, increasing vaginal pressure. That's known as lightening, per the National Library of Medicine

It happens sometime before labor, and individuals who have given birth may not experience lightening until labor has actually started.

If you experience lightening, you may notice that your abdomen appears lower than normal. That shifts the fetus from placing pressure on your lungs, allowing you to breathe easier. However, you may notice that you have to run to the bathroom more often since the fetus places more pressure on your bladder.

When You Should Be Concerned

All pregnant people pay attention to how much—or how little—their fetus is moving, even if those kicks to the ribs are totally uncomfortable. However, less movement is not a sign that labor is impending, according to Dr. Campaigne.

"There's the idea that the [fetus] 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," said Dr. Campaigne.

Additionally, according to the National Library of Medicine, vaginal bleeding (more than light spotting) or painful contractions that occur consistently within an hour and every five to 10 minutes are causes for concern.

In those cases, immediately consult your healthcare provider or visit labor and delivery in the emergency department of your closest hospital to receive an evaluation.

A Quick Review

Although the signs of imminent labor may be a bit confusing, don't panic. If you are experiencing painful contractions that become stronger and closer together, and the pain does not ease if you change body positions or walk, visit the emergency room, as those are signs of labor.

Additionally, if your water breaks, characterized by constant and obvious leaking, consult a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

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