Nearing the end of pregnancy can induce feelings of anticipation, anxiety, fear, happiness, dread, hopefulness, excitement and so much more. After experiencing 40 weeks of pregnancy, give or take, a woman knows how to be pregnant. She has been pregnant so long that she forgets what it’s like to NOT be pregnant. Which makes her wonder… will her body really know what to do? Will her body know how to go into labor? Looking for signs of labor is normal and comes from the uncomfortableness of anticipating the unknown that lies ahead. A woman knows how to be pregnant… but labor? This upcoming birth? Will it really happen?
The end of pregnancy is the beginning of something new – the beginning of labor and birth but also the beginning of becoming a parent. What a huge change! It makes sense that parents look for a road map of sorts to guide them through the unknowns of this new beginning.
In this blog post I hope to give you, dear reader, a detailed description of the signs of labor to use as a road map as you walk through the unknowns of becoming a parent. But know this, even with map in hand, becoming a parent necessitates stepping into the unknown.
Get ready for an adventure!
Signs of Labor – Is It Baby Time?
One way to look at the onset of labor is by comparing it to becoming sick. Some people become sick quickly – they wake up in the middle of the night, throw up and immediately feel achey with a fever. It’s obvious that they are sick!
Others, may feel sniffly for a day or two, after that a mild sore throat sets in, but it’s not until a few days later that the energy levels drop and bed rest is needed. Looking back, it is easy to see when sickness began, but at the beginning, symptoms were so mild it was difficult to determine if it was sickness or just something else. It could very well have been allergies, but a few days in it became obvious that it was actually a virus.
Just like sickness, determining if it is baby time can be obvious or… NOT! Both, and everything in between is normal! Sometimes the best way to determine if you’re in labor is by hindsight – it’s 20/20!
Early Signs of Labor
The following early signs of labor don’t really mean much in and of themselves. For instance, if you are irritable and your back aches, but you experience no other early signs of labor, it likely just means you’re going to have a baby “soon”. Which you already know, right? 😉
However, if you are experiencing a smattering of the following signs of labor including contractions that are not going away, but getting longer, stronger and closer together, you are likely on your way to having a baby!
Use these 12 early signs of labor to help determine if it is baby time or if what you’re experiencing is just normal symptoms of the end of pregnancy.
Dropping, or lightening, is when baby settles lower into the pelvis, getting ready for birth. This is sometimes outwardly noticeable and strangers may even comment, “Any day now! You’re carrying your baby so low!” Let it roll off your back, you are being initiated into motherhood. 😉
Dropping in and of itself does not mean that you’re in labor, or that labor is imminent, but that labor will be “soon”. Take heart, because dropping can take pressure off your upper digestive tract bringing relief from heartburn and the ability to eat larger meals.
On the other hand, bladder and pelvic pressure is a real thing. Take time to put your feet up – you’ll need it!
Nesting and Restlessness
Some women nest their entire pregnancy, and for some the nesting urge doesn’t kick in until the very end. For those that experience nesting as an early sign of labor they will experience an overwhelming urge to clean, organize or create something. They will feel restless and won’t be able to sit still and “do nothing”.
My mother found herself cleaning the inside of her washer machine. I, on the other hand, tried to keep my home in a constant state of cleanliness. For example, as soon as laundry came out of the dryer I put it away!
Irritability is another early sign of labor, but obviously in and of itself is not THE sign of labor. For example, if a woman is experiencing regular contractions and is feeling “nesty” but her family (that means well) is preventing her from cleaning and organizing, she may easily become irritable. She could totally be in early labor!
On the other hand, if she wakes in the middle of the night with irregular, yet strong contractions which end up fizzling out by 6 am, she may feel irritable the next day. She’s likely not in labor, but it sounds like labor will be “soon”.
Another sign of labor is back ache. With my first child I was experiencing regular, timetable braxton hicks contractions – but they never got stronger, longer or closer together. One night, however, I woke up at 3 am feeling these same contractions but this time they were a little bit stronger and accompanied by a back ache.
Obviously, back ache by itself does not mean labor is happening, but accompanied with other symptoms and signs of labor it just may be the real deal!
For me back ache coupled with stronger contractions was the beginning of labor (AND back labor). (Make sure to read my post about how to cope with back labor.)
There are many reasons a pregnant woman may experience diarrhea – food poisoning, anxiety, sickness or labor. A loose stool by itself means nothing, but diarrhea with contractions and bloody show is good reason to think labor is near!
A Spidey Sense
Some women, as a sign of labor, experience “a vague feeling” that labor will be soon. For example, a friend may invite you to get a pedicure and you accept, but deep down you think you won’t make it because you’ll be busy having a baby.
I have no way to throughly describe exactly what this is, but some women as an early sign of labor “just know” that labor will happen today, tonight or tomorrow.
Another sign of labor is cervical change. The cervix is simply the opening of the uterus, where the baby comes through. During pregnancy this opening is closed (not dilated), thick (not effaced), pointing towards the mother’s back (posterior) and as an extra layer of protection for the baby in the cervix is a plug of mucus called the mucus plug.
Just remember, however, that cervical changes by themselves do not mean that labor is imminent. It simply means labor will be “soon”.
In labor the cervix opens to 10 cm, but often dilation can begin before labor. It is not unheard of to be 3-4 cm dilated before labor!
However, some mothers-to-be are shocked to learn that dilation in and of itself does not predict labor, but simply means birth will happen “soon”. Always remember, the vagina is not a crystal ball!
Another thing the cervix does before and during labor is that it thins out. During pregnancy it is thick and hard like the tip of the nose, but as pregnancy and labor progresses it softens and becomes paper thin. Much of early labor is devoted to the effacement of the cervix!
Another sign of labor, but one that is less spoken of, is when the cervix moves from a posterior position to an anterior position. Instead of being closed, thick and facing the back of the woman, the beginnings of labor changes the cervix to an open, soft and forward facing position.
Just like effacement, much of early labor is devoted to the cervix moving forward.
Sometimes, when the cervix is opening (dilating), softening (effecting) and moving forward (anterior), or even after sex, a woman may see light spotting and/or bloody mucus (the mucus plug) when she wipes after using the toilet. This is normal and surprisingly, does not mean that labor is imminent. It just means that you will be having a baby “soon”.
However, bloody show in combination with some of the symptoms listed above and contractions that progressively become stronger, longer and closer together is a definite sign of labor.
Another one of the more obvious signs of labor are contractions that become stronger, longer and closer together. However, as black and white as that may seem, it can still be difficult to differentiate between real labor contractions and braxton hicks contractions.
Let’s talk about braxton hicks contractions! Here’s an excerpt from a post about braxton hicks contractions written at 34 weeks pregnant with my second child.
Braxton Hicks Contractions Symptoms
- It feels like my belly is hard as a rock… think abs of steel
- Uncomfortable and with lots of pressure
- The contraction is typically on one side of my belly
- The sensation is concentrated up front in a smaller area whereas when I was in labor the first time I felt it in my back
- Braxton hicks don’t increase in strength and intensity… they’re just annoying
- My braxton hicks contractions are close together, and even time-able. Sometimes they’ll be 5-10 minutes apart lasting 45 seconds. And yet, I’m not in labor.
- Sometimes caused by dehydration. If I drink A LOT of water and rest, they’ll space out or go away all together. (TIP: Carry a water bottle with you at all times! Or try some of these really awesome electrolyte cubes)
- Braxton hicks contractions can be caused by fetal movement
- They can also be caused by me moving
- And they can also be caused by going to the bathroom or having sex
Labor Contractions Symptoms
On the other hand, real labor contractions…
- Radiate throughout the entire belly
- May be accompanied by back pain
- Get longer over time
- Become stronger over time
- Get closer together over time
- Are timeable
- Don’t go away after drinking water, taking a shower, bath or taking a walk. In fact, they may even get even stronger, longer and closer together.
- Can also be triggered by moving, going to the bathroom, fetal movement or having sex.
If you are having contractions that are progressively getting stronger, longer and closer together you are likely in labor! (Make sure to check out my post about how to cope through active labor and when to go to the hospital!)
Another one of the more obvious signs of labor is when the water breaks – that is the amniotic sac of fluid surrounding the baby tears and a leaking or gushing of fluid comes out of the vagina.
However, simply because the amniotic sac has been ruptured it doesn’t necessarily mean labor is happening, it just means that the birth of your baby is eminent. Around 10% of women experience the water breaking before labor. For most women this happens during labor or sometimes the baby is born in the amniotic sac!
Once the water has been broken it is important to communicate with care providers to determine the best next step. For some women, labor may need to be induced or augmented to keep labor safe for mother and baby.
- Remember to keep communicating with care providers! It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and brainstorm all possible solutions.
- Determine if there are any alternatives that could be tried first since some natural methods of induction are more gentle than others.
What Happens During Labor?
Need more information? Check out the Doula’s Guide to the Stages of Labor for what to expect during each stage of labor and how to cope through it all.
Signs of Labor – Is It Baby Time?
Just to recap, if you are experiencing the following signs of labor it just might mean that it’s time for baby!
- Nesting and Restlessness
- Back Ache
- A Spidey Sense
- Cervical Movement
- Bloody Show
- Contractions that become stronger, longer and closer together
- Water Breaking