Healthy Pregnancy Series: Signs of Labor |

Healthy Pregnancy Series: Signs of Labor

admin March 2, 2011

Okay, we’re getting serious here!  Towards the end of pregnancy already!  When you’re waiting to experience the first signs of labor (which we’re going to talk about very soon), it can be very hard.  You know it’s almost time, you’re as big as house (or so you think), you’re exhausted, you have to pee again the second you finish….  

Seeing signs of labor would be so very welcome! But if it’s your first baby, you may not quite know what to look for when that big moment comes!

On TV they make it look so obvious.  The woman just suddenly stops, says, “I think the baby’s coming!” has a huge contraction out of nowhere (and regular, 2-minute-apart contractions from there on out.) Her water often breaks in a huge gush, and the baby is born quickly after a mad dash to the hospital.  There are no false alarms, slow starts, or “Well, I think this is it….”

Of course, real life is a tad bit different!  If you’ve had a baby before, you’re probably laughing right now.  Because, in fact, it’s very different.  In fact, every labor can be so different that even moms who have had a couple (or five) babies can be surprised and still wonder, “Is it…?” So, just to clear things up a little, let’s talk about the signs of labor!

Signs of Labor

Now…you should only see these when you are past 37 weeks.  If you see any of these signs of labor before 37 weeks, call your doctor immediately, and go to a hospital if you cannot reach him/her.  It may be a false alarm, but you don’t want to risk pre-term labor (next week’s topic).

If you note these after 37 weeks, it’s okay to watch, wait, and see what happens, but don’t hesitate to call if either 1) they asked you to, or 2) you feel uneasy waiting. You may notice:

  • The baby “dropping” or settling lower in your pelvis (usually a few days to a few weeks before labor starts)
  • A sudden “burst of energy,” often called nesting
  • A feeling that labor is near
  • Loose bowels
  • Increase in cervical mucus, especially if tinged with blood (losing your mucus plug)
  • Mild contractions that are regular, and growing stronger, longer and closer together.  They do not go away if you move around, lie down, or change positions (if they do it’s not real labor)
  • A trickle or gush of fluid (your water breaking)
  • Cramping and/or back pain that won’t go away
  • Feeling of intense pressure very low (baby’s head pressing down)

For the first 5 signs of labor, there is no reason to rush to call your doctor — even if you are not quite at your due date yet.  These are not signs that anything “is” happening, just that it might happen soon.

It is normal, especially in first pregnancies, for the baby to drop by 32 – 34 weeks, but it does not mean you will deliver early (my first baby dropped at 34 weeks and was born just after 39 weeks).

A feeling that labor is near, or a burst of energy can also happen a few weeks before labor, or multiple times, or just because you’re plain sick of being pregnant!  Again, no rush to call.

As far as losing your mucus plug, you may lose it over several days and not notice.  You may lose a big glob at once.  It is possible to lose days before labor, or when you are already in active labor.  You may want to call if it is well before your due date just to check in, so that you’re not caught off guard if pre-term labor does start.  But it’s not an emergency.

Contractions and More

Contractions, your water breaking, intense back pain, and intense pressure low are all signs that the baby is coming soon, and that you are in real labor.  Make sure that your contractions are real (though again, if pre-term, just call) before calling your doctor or going anywhere.  If they’re erratic, or go away when you change positions, they’re just “practice,” called Braxton-Hicks.

A fun note: you’ll experience these Braxton-Hicks earlier and earlier in each subsequent pregnancy.  It’s not uncommon to feel them at the beginning of the second trimester in third, fourth, or fifth pregnancies!  (Just extra fun!)  I felt them starting around just 8 – 9 weeks with my fifth baby!  Some women worry this is a sign of miscarriage, but it often isn’t in later pregnancies.

There is no way to guess exactly how your labor will go based on how your contractions start.  Some women do start with rather erratic, far apart contractions (that don’t go away while changing positions!), like 5 min., 15 min., 8 min., etc.  And yet, they settle into a regular pattern soon and have their babies in a few hours.  A very rare few never settle into a regular pattern and still deliver quickly! Others start labor with contractions two minutes apart and strong.  But they might be in labor for 12 hours or more.  (Yes…this happened to me!)

Back pain can be a sign of back labor, and you may not feel “normal” contractions.  But, you may still be dilating.  Intense, low pressure can mean your water is about to break, or your baby is extra low because your are dilating (even if you don’t feel the contractions, which happens very rarely).

Healthy Pregnancy Series Signs of Labor pinterest

How Do I Know It’s Real?

Many women want to be sure this is the real thing.  There are a few ways to tell:

  • Your water breaks (and you’re sure you didn’t wet yourself!)
  • Contractions are strong and consistent, even if not very close together yet
  • You check yourself and note that your cervix is changing

Those are the best ways to tell for sureSeveral women wake up late in pregnancy, wet, thinking their water broke — but did, unfortunately, just wet the bed!  (Embarrassing?  Yes.  Sorry.  It’s a good idea to keep a waterproof pad on your bed late in pregnancy in case you wet the bed or your water really does break.)

Some midwives will give you some little papers which check for amniotic fluid.  If you dribble on them (so ladylike!) and they turn a certain color, it will prove your water has broken.

Once you’re in real labor, nothing will stop your contractions.  You can lie down, walk around, sip water, change positions — and they will not let up.  They will get your attention and they will come regularly.  Yes, that’s real labor too!

You can also learn to check yourself, to see if your cervix is dilating or effacing.  Effacing is harder to tell.  Basically — wash your hands and sit on the toilet in a comfortable position.  Reach up high until you find your cervix.  If you’ve used natural family planning to avoid or conceive, you may already be familiar with this.

When you reach your cervix you’ll know, it will feel a bit harder than the rest of the tissue.  You may also be able to feel something very hard — your baby’s head! When you find your cervix, note how long it is.  That is, how much you feel before your baby’s head.  It will get shorter and shorter as labor progresses until there’s none left.

You can also note how “open” it is.  You’ll feel a small hole in the center, that will get larger as labor progresses.  You can estimate how many centimeters dilated you are from this.  If you check late in pregnancy before going into labor, it is possible to be 3 – 5 cm dilated and not have your baby for weeks!  But it is also possible to be completely closed and have your baby in a matter of hours, so unless you’re in active labor, this is not a reliable sign of how soon your baby is coming.

Through April 24 only!

What Do I Do Now?

We’ll talk more about coping with pain and pain management options in labor later.  But as for the immediate “what do I do,” it depends.

If you are planning a hospital birth, and are fairly certain you’re in labor, call your doctor to let him know.  Some don’t want to hear from you until you’re on your way in, so note his policies before calling.

Relax.  If it’s night time or you are tired, try to sleep.  Can’t sleep? At least rest.  If you’re not tired, go on about your normal activities as long as you are in early labor.  Make lunch, fold some laundry, do other light chores.  Watch a movie, call a friend, do some scrapbooking. When you are unable to concentrate on all of this other “stuff,” try walking around, rocking, or sitting on a birthing ball (again, we’ll talk about coping mechanisms later).

When you have to focus completely on labor, it’s time to go to the hospital, if you’re going (or call your midwives if you’re not!). As long as you can, don’t worry about labor!  When it’s serious, you will have no other choice!

What signs of labor did you notice first?  How quickly did you realize it was “the real thing?”

This is the writings of:



  1. I was already 3 cm at my last dr. visit i was 36 1/2 weeks when i had my son. I actually didn't even realize I was in labor. I was talking to my mom on the phone telling her about my last dr. visit. I told her i was having a cramp. It felt like a period cramp. She started telling me I should have my husband stay home from work. I told her nah it's not labor. It would hurt a lot more. lol Well after realizing these cramps were coming at regular intervals I called the dr. I called my husband to come home from work. I got to the hospital about 6:30 pm. I was already dialated 8 cm. The dr. came in and broke my water (i think she just wanted to go home 🙁 ) I pushed for about an hour and had my beautiful little son. We were blessed to have a quick and easy labor. We're hoping to have another child soon (no luck yet) but we're definitely looking at a midwife this time around. While the Dr. wasn't horrible she didn't really want to let the delivery progress at my pace and she kept offering me drugs eventhough it stated in my birthplan I didn't want to be offered any.


  2. It felt like bad menstrual cramps– which was weird, since I hadn't had cramps in about 10 months! I knew something was up. After a few hours, they were NOT going away and they were getting worse. After showering, walking, trying to lie down (haha, way too uncomfortable), they were continuing to intensify and I knew it would be soon. For a first timer, I had a pretty fast labor–about 11 hours total.


  3. I woke up around 1 am and had to pee and then had a clean out session from both ends (sorry if tmi). I tried to lay back down but just couldn't get comfortable. I had low back pain like period cramps and the pains just kept getting harder and harder. Eventually, I woke my husband up, we both showered and then went to the hospital around 6:30 am. I ended up having Dylan in about 9 hours so like Michelle above, mine was pretty quick. I definitely credit it to staying fairly active throughout the pregnancy. I mean, geez, I was camping and kayaking the weekend before he was born and he was born Monday morning 🙂


  4. With my first, my water broke as I was trying to fall asleep that night. Within 5 minutes I'd had bloody show/lost my plug, loose stools and started having mild contractions. He was born 10 or so hours later (active labor starting around midnight).

    With my second, I was so excited/nervous to see how labor would start! I thought the weirdest would be to wake up in the middle of the night contracting and that's exactly what happened. Active labor was shorter (like 3.5-4 hours) and my water didn't break until I was pushing. So different!


  5. Oops, I forgot to say…I had loose stools with BOTH boys, and actually I was unsure I was even *really* in labor with my second until the pooping started. And continued. For a good two hours. 😛


  6. I had about a week of prodomal labor. No one had ever told me about that! I went to the hospital after four days and was sent home at 5 cm because I wasn't "screaming." Just as well, because the contractions continued, off and on, for three more days before the baby was finally born! The only way I was really sure to go in to the hospital was that I went to my ob/gyn appointment and was dilated to a six! He told me to go right on in, he'd call ahead for us. 😉 The baby was born about nine hours later.

    Next time, I want to have a home birth. One of the real advantages to that is that I don't have to worry about when to go in to the hospital. Before, I didn't want to wait too late because I didn't want to feel rushed or hit transition in the car. At home, I can call as late as I want.


  7. Great article. My wife is less than 1 month from her due date and the other night she had really bad indigestion and thought it could be labor. Thankfully it went away after a couple hours.


  8. So funny! With my first I was in labor for about 30 hours — 15 of early stage (mild contractions 15-20 minutes apart) and 15 of "active" labor — lots of back labor the whole way through. My water didn't break until I was fully dilated, right before pushing. Pushed for about an hour. Pretty "classic" and uneventful.
    My second was completely different! At my 39 week apt. (on a Thurs) I was 1 1/2 cm dilated and my doctor stripped my membranes; she said that if I didn't have the baby in 24 hours that it "didn't work". All weekend I had strong practice contractions and on Saturday some pressure with these practice contractions but they were not regular and stopped if I sat down or laid down. I noticed a minor loose stool before going to be around 11pm Saturday night (but this is not unusual for me). At 2am I awoke having to pee very badly. As I got out of bed my water broke (but I didn't know it b/c it was such a small amount — only my underpants were damp). I went to the bathroom and also pooped. I was having minor "gas pains" and continued to poop, still not thinking I was in labor. I woke my husband and mom up when I started pushing — that was the first time I thought I was actually in labor! Asher was born at 3:55am, at home, after only a few pushes…


  9. I was in labor for almost twenty four hours. My husband and I planned to give birth to my child on September 1 but because I had such a hard time in labor, my now seven months baby took a little longer to get out from my belly. It was good though that we went through a series of pregnancy classes. My husband was very calm the entire time which helped me contain myself. I’d suggest women to insist that their husbands be as informed as them.


  10. All pregnant women should read this!! It is especially important to be aware of the signs early in pregnancy too, and THANK YOU for mentioning that! I have had so many moms of preemies report that they wish they had been better educated on the signs of labor. They would have gone to the hospital or called the doctor sooner and perhaps prevented a premature birth.

    Speaking of different… I had labor signs with only one of my pregnancies.

    I was induced for medical reasons with 1st, had only 2hrs of “labor” before she was born. I had no labor with 2nd, was 5cm dialated and bulging bag at 36 week doctor appt, sent to hospital for monitoring overnight, by morning I was fully dialated but not contracting at all and bag of water still intact, got epidural in prep for “induction”, a few minutes later the baby just kinda fell out. That was my shortest hospital stay too, went home in less than 24 hours.

    My 3rd one is the only time I felt any signs of labor… and it was indeed early labor… at 25 weeks 🙁 Thankfully it was stopped, but I was on procardia and modified bedrest until 37 weeks. At 37 weeks I came off meds and resumed full activity. I had zero contractions, zero cramping, absolutely no signs of any impending labor for over a week. Then baby came just like in the movies. One night at 2am my water broke (yes, gushed) at home, hard core contractions 1-2 mins apart started within 5 minutes, hubby ran stoplights on way to hospital, 5cm dialated on arrival, baby born 25 minutes later. However, an almost 9lb baby barrelling thru the birth canal in less than 30 minutes caused some significant tearing down there, needing LOTS of stitches, and I had to stay an extra day in the hospital to be sure I was healing properly.

    Yes indeed, labors are oh so different!


  11. I am currently 36 weeks pregnant with my 4th child,Logan has already dropped. However I am capable of feeling early signs of labor as it’s below my pain threshold so I am kind of nervous as I’m getting the feeling that the time for pregnancy is coming to an end rather shortly. I am also trying to avoid any preterm labor but as stated above contractions I don’t really feel.I am just feeling a lot of pressure. I also have a funny sensation that makes me think my water is bulging. This entire pregnancy has been so different from anything I have experienced with my others. I am just getting nervous as the time gets closer. So I’m hoping Logan makes his arrival soon.


    • I felt like that a lot in my third pregnancy — lots of pressure and wondering if I’d go early. But baby held out until 40 weeks. 🙂 Have you seen a chiropractor? Do whatever makes you feel comfortable while you wait!


  12. My water broke and I realized when everytime I moved, fluid just kept gushing and wouldn’t stop. They did the swab and sure enough it broke. 17 hours of labor but only half an hour of pushing and my little girl entered the world. Really wasn’t as bad as I expected


  13. I’m currently 39 weeks and 3 days with my first baby, and I just want to say I really appreciate the encouraging stories from you ladies! It makes me more confidant for when my time comes. Thank you!


  14. I’ve read through the stories and I just wanted to share so that others can be prepared for very fast births… my first was right on 37 weeks waters broke at 7pm without pain or warning he was born at 8.18pm! My second was born at 38 weeks waters broke he was born in 2.17mins, My third was born at 39weeks I lost some hynd waters had high BP with regular contractions they broke waters at 6pm at my son was born 3hrs later. I’m currently 37weeks with baby very low in pelvis and prepared for anything!!


  15. I am 37+4 weeks and I am not sure whats going on; Last sunday I lost part of plug, have had contractions alot but not consistant; last three days ive had soft stools, nausea pelvic pressure, abdominal pains, etc. could it be the start of labor for SOFT Stools not LOOSE


  16. I am due tomorrow and have noticed some fluid coming out frequently, I’m not sure if my waters have broken or if its just my show. Last night I started having mild cramps and it continued today. Should I go to hospital or wait it out?


    • Hi Chantell,

      I would call your doctor or midwife to report what you are experiencing and ask their opinion. Generally if it’s early on and you’re unsure, it’s okay to stay home and wait until you know.


  17. Yesterday after manual exam I lost a lot of brown blood mixed with grossness and lots of cramps and called clinic, they had me go to labor and delivery where I was having a few contractions (probably 10 real ones in two hours) my water had not broke yet and baby looked great on monitor so they sent me home. They did do another exam and she showed me more old blood and said I was only about 3 cm dilated. After coming home only had maybe two real contractions and slept. Today baby is less active and I’m having horrific back pain and lost so much brown tinged mucus that it’s like my vagina has a cold. No contractions though. Very very sleepy and even drinking water or sprite makes me want to vomit. I’m 39 weeks today based on ultrasound but 37+6 according to clinic what’s some advice


  18. My labor and delivery was much like the one you mentioned from TV! I had no clue I was in labor as my contractions were strong but bearable and completely sporadic. I lasted down to go to sleep and decided to listen to a podcast called “Laboring in Glory”. Every time I would have a contraction, I would lift my hands to God and say, “I don’t have to experience pain. Jesus took it all on the cross.” And I would visualize myself handing my pain over to Him. Almost immediately my pain would dissipate. I did not experience back pain during the contractions but I did feel a weird tingly sensation. I dismissed it cause it wasn’t painful as I had been told it would be. After about an hour, I did have one very bad contraction that lasted for about a minute and a half. At the end I felt the urge to push. That’s when I knew I had messed up and I wasn’t gonna make it to the hospital. I quickly woke my husband up and called my MW. She told me to get to the hospital ASAP. After hanging up with her, I made my way to the toilet to pee and…POP! My water breaks and baby’s head begins to come down immediately. I told my husband what was happening and I threw a towel on the floor. I squatted and about 2 min later, I delivered my baby girl.
    It was a surreal experience and I’m so grateful we are both ok! God was surely with us!


  19. With my first I was induced and had no signs or nothing, with my second I don’t remember having any signs leading up to labour but when i started I had very bad diarrhoea whilst contracting, by the time I realised it was labour I was 6cm dilated rung ambulance got to hospital at 10am and she was here at 10:50am. I am currently 39+4 with my third I haven’t been sleeping well for a few months due to problems with my legs, for the past few weeks I’ve had on and off diarrhoea and the odd sickness here and there but the last few hours my belly has been getting tight I’m not feeling any pain but feeling a lot of pressure, it feels like a bulging down below, might sound weird but I can open my legs wider then I have been able to in a long time. Baby still active and I was just wandering if this is a sign that labour is near as I never had any sign before.


  20. Im 34 weeks i was laying down and when i got up i couldnt even walk because my lower back hurts so bad this is my 3rd pregnancy ive never experienced pre term labor as my other 2 were full term babies my waters never broke with them so im not sure what to expierence with this one my 1st child i was in labor for 23 hours and 2nd child less then that should i be worried


  21. This is my first baby. I’m 18 and just hit 37 weeks today. I have had cramps for the past few days and sometimes a feeling of downward pressure. I have also been EXTREMLY exhausted the past few days even if I don’t do anything all I want to do is sleep. For about 4 days now my BM has been loose and I’ve had a BM everyday which is not common for me at all (sorry tmi) my next OB appointment is Wednesday and I graduate high school Thursday..I really kinda hope she waits so I can walk to stage lol.. but I was curious if this looks like I am going to go into labor soon?


  22. 1st child my mucus plug feel out and me being 18 asked the MIL and she said time to go. Got checked in hospital n an older nurse had me walk for an hr, then checked me and said I was close to breaking so she tried to convince the doctor to let me stay, the doc says no and as soon as she signed my papers my water broke. I went to sleep after that but kept waking up because I had butt contraction(weird right. Only happed when my contraction watcher said I had a contraction). 15 min of pushing n I was done. 2nd child I woke up at 4am with back contractions, took a hot shower and went to sleep. Woke up 2hr later n told hubby time to go, but I had to pee first, 5min later in our car a 7lb baby came fast into the world.(hubby said the car had new baby smell). 3rd child I had serious braxton Hicks a month b4 birth. woke up at 4am, n was like it’s time, went to hospital, processed n 10 min later a child was born. N so far with this pregnancy I think I’m having braxton Hicks early. I’m only 2 months, thanks for sharing info that you could have them early. Idk what it was, bkuz I’ve had a miscarriage before n it was not that, this would b our first


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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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