How to Recognize the Signs of Labor

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In the weeks or days preceding your baby’s birth, there will be some signs that your body is preparing for labor. All pregnancies and labors are different, and the signs of labor can sometimes be hard to notice. Know the typical signs of labor and when to talk to your doctor or midwife.

Noticing Early Signs

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    Familiarize yourself with the signs of lightening. Lightening, also known as the baby dropping, refers to your baby moving towards the lower pelvis. This may happen a few weeks before birth or a few days.
    • You will find yourself less short of breath as the baby is pushing less on your lungs; however, as the baby is moving downward, there will be increased pressure on your bladder. You may need to urinate more frequently.[1]
    • There might also be a sense of pressure or heaviness in your pelvis.[2]
    • It may be a few weeks before labor begins, but if you've experienced the lightening it is a sign that labor is coming.[3]
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    Watch for the bloody show and mucus plug. In labor, the cervix expands to allow the baby to pass through the vagina. When this occurs, a large amount of discharge comes through the vagina. The mucus plug and bloody show are two early signs of labor.
    • Capillaries burst as the cervix dilates in preparation for birth. This causes pink or brown vaginal discharge, known as the "bloody show." Your bloody show can occur anywhere from a few hours before birth to a few weeks.[4]
    • Throughout your pregnancy, a thick plug of mucus blocks your cervix to prevent infection. For some women, the plug falls out during the early stages of cervix dilation.[5] The plug will be pinkish in color and stringy in texture. Much like your "bloody show," this can happen a few hours to a few weeks before you give birth.[6]
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    Figure out when your water breaks. One of the most well-known aspects of labor is the water breaking. This can be a slow or sudden process. You should always inform your doctor or midwife when your water breaks as labor needs to start soon after this occurs to prevent complications.
    • The amniotic sac is filled with a variety of fluids that help cushion the baby during pregnancy. The membranes in this sac rupture during the early stages of labor. This is what's known, conventionally, as your water breaking.[7]
    • Your water breaking can be a slow, trickling sensation, something like gradually leaking. It can also be a sudden release of fluids.[8]
    • With the amniotic sac no longer intact, labor will begin soon. The risk of infection increases if labor is delayed after your water breaks so your doctor may want to induce if you do not begin labor naturally.[9]

Identifying Contractions

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    Recognize Braxton Hicks contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions are mild contractions that occur before labor begins. It can sometimes hard to differentiate between Braxton Hicks contractions and true labor.
    • Braxton Hicks contractions are typically short and not painful. They feel like a mild contracting feeling, similar to period cramps.[10]
    • Braxton Hicks contractions are not accompanied by any bleeding or leaking of fluids. They do not last particularly long, and they do not come at regular intervals. Sometimes, moving around or shifting positions can cause the contractions to stop.[11]
    • Braxton Hicks contractions usually show up later in pregnancy, around the 35th week. If you're unsure whether you're having Braxton Hicks contractions or true contractions, contact your OB/GYN.[12]
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    Familiarize yourself with the nature of true contractions. True contractions do not necessarily come after water breaking; they come at the beginning of labor. There are many ways to identify true contractions.
    • True contractions come in regular intervals. They generally begin 15 to 20 minutes apart and last about 60 to 90 seconds. As time goes on, they come closer together until you reach the active stage of labor where contractions are only two to three minutes apart.[13]
    • True contractions will not stop, even if you switch positions or walk around. They will be quite painful, and the pain will often spread to your lower back and upper stomach.[14]
    • Contractions will make interacting with others challenging. During a genuine contraction, you might not be able to talk or laugh at jokes.[15]
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    Cope with early contractions. During the early stages of labor, contractions will be far apart. Your doctor will probably not advise you to come to the hospital or prepare for birth at home immediately. There are ways to cope with contractions when they're still in the early, mild stage.
    • Take a warm shower or bath. The water can help ease some of the pain; however, if your water has broken, talk to your healthcare provider before taking a bath.[16]
    • Try to distract yourself with daily activities. Go for a walk, go shopping, or watch a movie.[17]
    • If it's nighttime, try to sleep. You'll need energy later on as labor progresses and you need to work to push the baby out.[18]

Watching for Other Signs

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    Take stock of nausea and diarrhea. During the early stages of labor, you may experience some signs of indigestion. Nausea and diarrhea are common right before labor or in its early stages.
    • Some women have the urge to empty their bowels from the release of prostaglandin. If stools are loose and bowel movements are frequent, this may be a sign labor is beginning.[19]
    • Nausea can be caused by hormonal changes that upset the stomach. You may have no appetite and feel sick in response to certain smells and foods.[20]
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    Be aware of the nesting instinct. In the days leading up to labor, you may feel a sudden burst of energy. This energy spike is often coupled with the desire to begin preparing your home for a baby. You may want to make meals, set up the crib, and arrange the baby's outfits. This is known as the nesting phase. While there is no scientific basis for its occurrence, many women experience the urge to nest just before labor.[21]
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    Seek immediate care in the event of an emergency. Some aspects of labor are abnormal and may be a sign something is wrong with you or the baby. If you notice any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor immediately and go to the hospital:[22]
    • Heavy, bloody vaginal discharge
    • Decreased fetal movement
    • Very painful contractions for over an hour that come every five to 10 minutes

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