What Are the Signs of Labor?

In this article:
  • Will my water break?
  • What do contractions feel like?
  • Does losing your mucous plug mean anything?
  • Can you be dilated and not be in labor?

Labor Signs, New Mommy Media
If you’re expecting your first baby, you might be wondering… How will I know if I’m in labor? Will early labor and contractions be obvious? Will my water dramatically break like it does on television? Susan Melnikow, a Certified Nurse Midwife, explains how to determine if your labor is the real deal.

Will my water break?

Contrary to what you might see on the television and in movies, the water breaking is the first thing to happen only in about 20% of pregnancies. In close to 80% of pregnancies, it’s actually one of the last things to happen, so you can’t count on it as the first sign of labor. Once it does break, it can feel like a big gush or just a trickle, but it will be constant (unlike leaking urine, which may stop). If your water breaks should be in active labor within 24 hours, otherwise your chance of infection increases. Another important point to note – the water should be clear. If it’s yellow, green, black, or brown, it could indicate that the baby has had his/her first bowel movement inside the womb, and this could be a sign of distress.

TIP: True contractions continue regardless of your activity level or position. Most contractions last 30-90 seconds. Want more information about labor signs? Listen to our episode or read our transcript!

What do contractions feel like?

Depending on the person, they could feel like menstrual cramps or a backache. They will feel different from the Braxton Hicks contractions you’ve been experiencing later in pregnancy. Labor contractions are more intense and the frequency will gradually increase. Many doctors and midwives advise that you follow the 411 rule for knowing when to head to the hospital. Time your contractions from the start of one contraction to the start of the next: When there are 4 minutes between contractions, with 1 minute of intensity, and they’ve been that way for at least an hour, it’s time to hit the road!

Does losing your mucus plug mean anything?

You can actually lose your mucus plug a few weeks before giving birth, so while this is a sign that things are progressing, it’s not a definite sign that baby’s arrival is imminent. Mucus plugs can vary in how they look – sometimes it will look like nasal snot, sometimes it will just be increased discharge, and sometimes it will be a little bloody. However, if you’re having a heavy amount of red blood, you should call your provider.

Can you be dilated and not be in labor?

In short, yes. Being dilated usually indicates you’re progressing, but it’s not a Magic 8 Ball for predicting timing. Some women are a few centimeters dilated for weeks before they give birth.

Finally, you should keep in mind that even if you’re actually in labor, things might stall when you get to hospital. Being in an unfamiliar environment may cause you to release stress hormones, which compete with oxytocin (the hormone that moves labor along). Fortunately, once a mom settles in and relaxes, the fight or flight hormones diminish and labor resumes.