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Pregnancy: Signs of labor

Reading the signs of early labor may seem tricky. Strong, regular contractions are the best signal that it's time to have your baby.

After months of waiting, it's almost here. The big day—the day of your baby's birth—is right around the corner.

In these last weeks, you may be feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety as you wait for labor to start. Your body has already gone through many changes. Now you're looking for signals that the process of birth is going to begin.

Knowing what happens during early labor can help you relax and do your part to prepare for your baby's arrival, says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

False labor

In recent weeks, you may have felt your uterus tighten and release in an irregular pattern. These "practice contractions" are called Braxton Hicks contractions. They may cause the uterus to contract for 30 to 60 seconds or as long as two minutes. Braxton Hicks contractions:

  • Are irregular in frequency and intensity.
  • Are unpredictable.
  • Are more uncomfortable than painful.
  • Do not get closer together or stronger as time goes on.
  • Taper off and then disappear.

As you get closer to your due date, Braxton Hicks contractions may become uncomfortable or even painful. These contractions are considered false labor as long as they are irregular in frequency and intensity. But they can prepare you for the real thing by giving you a chance to practice breathing exercises you may have learned in childbirth classes.

If you're not sure if your contractions are false labor or the real thing, use a watch to time them. Keep track of how long each contraction lasts and how long it is from the start of one to the start of the next. Keep a record for one hour.

Weak contractions can be hard to time and probably mean you are in false labor, notes ACOG. If your contractions are regular and getting stronger, you may be in early labor.

Real labor

Before labor, the mucus plug that has blocked the opening of the cervix during pregnancy is expelled. This is a sign that your cervix is beginning to dilate. Labor may begin within hours. Or it may start days or even weeks afterward. The mucus plug may be clear, slightly pink or blood-tinged in color. You may or may not notice when this happens.

When labor begins, contractions:

  • Come at regular intervals from 5 to 15 minutes apart.
  • Get closer together over time.
  • Last 60 to 90 seconds each.
  • Continue to happen if you walk, rest or change position.
  • Get steadily stronger.

Early labor pain often feels like a backache that moves around to the front.

Ask your doctor when you should call him or her once labor starts and when to leave for the hospital. During the early part of labor, you may be able to wait at home and rest. You may want to walk around or take a shower or warm bath. Ask your doctor if you should eat or drink during early labor.

Time to go

You'll know it's time to leave for the hospital or birthing center soon when:

  • Your contractions are five minutes apart or less.
  • Your contractions are getting stronger, closer together and regular.
  • Your water breaks. This means the amniotic sac has ruptured. Write down the time that this happens, even if you aren't having contractions.

Call your doctor right away if you have constant, severe pain, advises ACOG.

What if I make a mistake?

Some women go to the hospital with strong, regular contractions. But then the pains stop once they arrive. If this happens, don't worry or feel embarrassed. Think of the trip as a good trial run. And know that you'll be back soon.

reviewed 10/21/2019

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