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The Signs of Labor

The Signs of Labor


Waiting for the signs of labor to begin can be an arduous process, requiring lots of patience. You can’t help but look for the signs that your baby will be with you soon. As you near the end of your pregnancy, keep in mind that the range of healthy delivery dates can be anywhere from a few weeks earlier than your estimated due date, to 1 or 2 weeks afterward. If all are healthy and well, sit back and try to enjoy this time before your baby arrives. 

Possible signs that labor is near

Unfortunately, there is no magical formula to predict when your labor will begin, which can be especially frustrating after a long pregnancy and while anxiously awaiting the arrival of your baby… but some signs that may indicate labor is nearing:

  1. Your cervix begins to dilate- Your doctor or midwife may ask to do a cervical check and if you consent you can learn if your cervix has begun to dilate. Did you know you can check your own cervix? Speak with your provider to learn how you can safely check your own cervix at home. The results won’t be a predictor of how much longer you have to wait but you can get an idea of what your body is up to and if it’s begun to prepare for labor. While your care provider may say they have to do a cervical check each week, beginning at 36 weeks, some parents prefer to skip these, since they do not definitively tell us when we’re going into labor!
  2. Fatigue- Many pregnant people experience more fatigue than usual nearing the end of their pregnancies. Catch up on the extra rest if you can; your future self will thank you.
  3. Nesting instinct- That overwhelming desire to clean, organize and prepare your home for its newest member is thought to be a sign that labor may begin in the coming weeks. If you find yourself scrubbing the tile grout with a toothbrush and obsessively organizing your baby’s sock drawer, you might be having that burst of energy just before the baby comes. 

Possible signs of labor

  1. Menstrual-like cramps
  2. Soft bowel movements
  3. Any sensation which comes and goes with great regularity (lower back pain, gas, leg pain, cervical pressure, back pain, etc.
  4. Loss of your mucus plug or increased discharge
  5. Bloody show- blood that is present when you wipe.

Not all pregnant people will experience all of these indicators. Your doctor, midwife, or doula will also be able to help you determine whether you are actually in labor.

Probable Signs of Labor

  1. Contractions. There is a wide range of how labor is experienced but the clearest indicator that labor has begun is with contractions that increase in intensity, frequency, and duration. You can track contractions with an app or simply write down the beginning of each contraction, noting the time and how long each one lasts, until you find a basic pattern. 
  2. Water breaking. This can range from a gush of liquid to small sprinkles over time. While some people will have their water break and not actively go into labor, they will eventually be induced and so having your water break is a good indication that you will soon have your baby one way or another! The average person goes into labor within 24 hours of the water breaking. 
  3. Cervix dilates continually.

Definite Signs of Labor

A person is definitely in labor when they have ongoing contractions which increase in length, strength, and frequency and which do not stop or reduce, coupled with cervical dilation.

What are Braxton Hicks?

Braxton Hicks are essentially practice contractions; irregular contractions that usually last for about 30 seconds or less. They are usually described as being uncomfortable or as a tightening sensation in the uterus or belly, but not painful. If you notice that your contractions subside with time, changing your position, walking, drinking, or eating, you are likely experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions. They are no cause for concern or a trip to the hospital. Braxton Hicks differ from actual labor because they will not increase in length, strength, or frequency.

What Is Prodromal Labor?

Prodromal labor is on and off labor with contractions of varying strength which starts and stops or drags on for many days and does not easily progress toward the delivery of your baby. It can sometimes occur days, or weeks before active labor actually starts or it can be a multi-day part of your early labor. These contractions are thought to prepare your body for active labor and may encourage the baby into a birthing position. Many people believe prodromal labor occurs when the baby is not in the ideal position for birth and the uterine work helps move the baby into a better birthing position. The average length of prodromal labor is about 24-72 hours.  Prodromal labor can sometimes be confusing and feel as though actual labor has begun because the contracts may have periods where they come on a consistent basis and are painful, but may not increase in intensity, frequency, or duration or result in significant cervical change. Trying asymmetrical positions may help the baby rotate into a more ideal position for active labor to come on. 

What Should I Do Once Labor Has Begun?

  1. Notify your birth team! 

Once you think that labor might have started, you’ll want to notify your birth team: your partner, doctor, midwife, doula, and anyone else who you intend to have with you while you labor. Your doctor, midwife, or doula will ask you questions, listen to the sounds you make, whether you can speak during contractions, how far apart, and how long the contractions are, and will advise you on your next steps. At some point, after your contractions pick up in intensity, frequency, and duration, it will be time to transfer to your birthing location (or wait to be joined by your midwife if you are planning a home birth). 

  1. Time your contractions to help determine when to go to the hospital or birth center or when to call the midwife if you are planning a home birth. 

Childbirth education classes will help you learn more about how to know when it’s time to go to the hospital or birth center or when to call the midwife if birthing at home. The most common rule for coming in to the place of birth is the 5-1-1 rule: contractions are coming 5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute long, and this is going on for 1 full hour. People who are planning to avoid pain medications often use the 3-1-1 rule. The number of minutes could be more or less depending on if this is your first vaginal delivery, other potential health considerations, and how far you live from your birthing location. Talk with your midwife or doctor ahead of time to learn which labor timing rule is appropriate for you. 

At the end of pregnancy, feeling discomfort and impatience are totally normal. Pregnancy is a major and lengthy physiological change. Try to think about the ultimate payoff: you are about to meet your baby! Pay attention to the signs of labor to get an idea of how much more waiting you have to do before you have your little one in your arms. 

Laura is a doula, having served clients in both New York and in mid-Michigan. She is a wife and the mother of two, a toddler, and a teen. When Laura is not supporting new families or her own, you can find her trying out fun new recipes. Laura is available on the boober platform for matches.

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