Signs of Labor: How to Know When You're in Labor
How to Know When You're in Labor
January 28, 2019

How to Know When You're in Labor

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How to Know When You're in Labor.
How to Know When You're in Labor

After nine months of waiting, those last few days of pregnancy can feel like the longest. You’re ready to meet your baby (and see your feet again), but you aren’t sure exactly when they will make an appearance.

While your due date is an educated guess as to when you’ll give birth, many people go into labor before or after that day. In fact, only about four percent of babies are born on their due dates, with most of the rest of births happening between 37 week pregnant and 42 weeks pregnant.

So what are the signs you’re going into or are in labor?

What Happens During Early Labor

The Baby Drops

Before your labor starts, you may notice some early signs. Your baby might drop in position, which is sometimes called “lightening.” Now that the baby is resting lower down, you’ll feel less pressure in your ribcage, which means you might be able to breathe easier (phew!). Of course, some babies stay put until the big day, so don’t worry if your baby is still sitting up high.

Cervical Changes

Your cervix will also undergo some changes as it gets ready to open for your baby’s arrival. While you probably won’t be able to feel this happening, your doctor or midwife will probably do an internal exam to check your cervix for dilation (the opening of the cervix, which is measured in centimeters) and effacement (the thinning of the cervix, which is measured in percentage).

During labor, your cervix will dilate from one centimeter all the way to 10. For some people, this process starts days or even weeks before they give birth, while for others it happens more quickly during labor.

Braxton Hicks Increase

You may also feel some Braxton Hicks contractions as your uterus gets ready for the real thing. (You may also begin to feel these “fake” contractions as early as late in the second trimester or any time in the third.) Your muscles will involuntarily tighten, making your belly feel hard to the touch.

As labor starts, the Braxton Hicks contractions will subside and real contractions will begin. You can tell the difference because true contractions don’t ease up if you change positions or start moving around, and they get more intense and frequent with time.

Remember 511: If your contractions are five minutes apart and one minute long for at least one hour, it’s a good time to head to the hospital, or at least give your doctor or midwife a call.

Not-So-Bloody Show

The mucus plug seals off the opening of your cervix to keep bacteria out of your uterus while baby is developing.

When labor starts, you will shed this mucus plug in what’s sometimes called the “bloody show”—but don’t let the name worry you. All that means is you might see some thick pink discharge when it dislodges (and you might not). If you do see bright red blood, check in with your doctor.

What Happens During Active Labor


As labor begins, you’ll start to have true contractions. For many people, they first feel like cramps in the lower back or abdomen, and they may start out pretty far apart, maybe just one or two per hour. You might find that moving, stretching or soaking in the tub makes the contractions more comfortable, but it won’t slow them down. If you’re in labor, your contractions will get more frequent as things progress.

Contractions Increase

Once you’ve determined that you’re having actual contractions, you’ll want to start timing them. There are many helpful phone apps (here are ones for iPhone and Android) that can do this for you, but a simple stopwatch will work too. Record how long each contraction lasts, and how long it takes for the next one to begin.

Remember the numbers 511: If your contractions are five minutes apart and one minute long for at least one hour, it’s a good time to head to the hospital, or at least give your doctor or midwife a call.

Timing Contractions
Contraction Start Time End Time Duration Frequency
1:10:15 1:11:10 55 Seconds
1:18:20 1:19:10 50 Seconds 8 min., 5 sec.
1:25:25 1:26:20 55 Seconds 7 min., 5 sec.
1:31:30 1:32:27 57 Seconds 6 min., 5 sec.

Your Water Breaks

Most television and movie portrayals of labor start with a gush of fluid as the pregnant lady’s water breaks all over the floor. Rest assured, that level of water-breaking drama is not typical for most pregnancies (though it can happen). More likely, if your water—the protective sac of fluid around your baby—breaks at all, you will notice a trickle that doesn’t stop when you squeeze your muscles.

Often, labor begins without any water breaking, and sometimes the baby is even born with the amniotic sac intact, which is known as a “caul” birth. If your water does break in a gush, call your doctor—she’ll probably want you to head to the hospital.

Relax! But When in Doubt, Get Checked Out

Most labors are fairly long—anywhere from eight to 18 hours, or even longer—so even after you’re sure yours has started, you probably have some time to relax. If you’re worried though, or if things are progressing quickly, call your doctor and check in. You’ll be meeting your baby before you know it!

Kelsey Wallace is a writer, producer and editor for television and publications including Oregon Public Broadcasting and Bitch magazine. She lives in Portland with her toddler and husband.

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