The big day is almost here! Find out what to expect when you start to experience the first signs of labor and when to head to the hospital.

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What do real contractions feel like? Why does my back hurt so much? How do I know when my water breaks? The early signs of labor are confusing and it’s not always easy to recognize when labor is starting.  The signs of normal labor can start as early as 3 weeks prior to the anticipated due date and up until 2 weeks afterward. Knowing the signs of labor approaching will help ease your mind as your body prepares for the arrival of your baby.

Pre-Labor Signs:

If you are experiencing these symptoms, your body is starting to prepare for labor. These symptoms may start a few weeks to a few days before you go into true labor.

1. Lightening

If you think you are waddling like a chubby little penguin already, wait until your baby drops. All that means is that the baby has settled deeper into your maternal pelvis. If you are only in your first trimester and can’t imagine what this feels like, grab a 10 lb medicine ball and stick it in between your thighs near your crotch and try to walk without dropping it. Yeah, I never thought I would waddle either early on in the pregnancy, but boy did I waddle by the end of the third trimester.

Good news? You can breathe again! No longer out of breath like you just ran the marathon after going up a couple of stairs! Bad news? The urge to pee is stronger than ever due to the increased pressure on your bladder. More bathroom trips in the middle of the night…fun!

2. Braxton Hicks Contractions

AHHHH is it really happening? Nope, just Braxton Hicks. Argh. While Braxton Hicks contractions can be uncomfortable (and a bit freaky, especially if they happen early on in the pregnancy), you can think of them as practice contractions that help rehearse your uterus for the big performance.

Unlike real contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions do not occur at regular intervals and will slow down if you drink water or change position. You may feel your bump tightening during Braxton Hicks contractions but unlike real contractions where you feel pain in the pelvic area, Braxton Hicks contractions tend to be higher up in the belly.

3. Nesting

For most of the third trimester you probably feel like you can hibernate forever. However, when nesting (the strong urge to prepare for the baby’s arrival) hits, you will all of a sudden feel like you have been injected with caffeine straight into your veins and you start going on an organizing and cleaning rampage. You will find yourself scrubbing the tile floor with a toothbrush or frantically running to the store to buy everything a baby needs even though the store will be closing in 10 minutes. You should warn your partner that he shouldn’t try and stop you – he may get hurt in the process.

4. Effacement and Dilation

I remember when I went to triage a few days before I gave birth and the doctor told me that I was about 50% effaced and 4 cm dilated. I started panicking because I thought dilation meant I should be giving birth soon, but the doctor sent me home saying that it could be a couple of days or it could be a couple of weeks. Effacement simply means thinning and softening of the cervix. As a result of effacement, your cervix begins to open or dilate, so your baby can pass through the vagina and enter the real world.

5. Increasing cramping Back Pain.

As your baby drops lower, your joints and muscles stretch and shifts to prepare for labor. You may feel pain in your lower back due to the pressure of the baby’s head against your spine and pelvis and the pain may radiate to the abdomen.

6. Diarrhea or Nausea

Unfortunately, the pregnancy nausea you felt in the first trimester may come back as labor nears. As all your muscles (including those in the rectum) start to relax and loosen in preparation for labor, you may experience soft bowl movements or diarrhea. Remember to drink lots of water and keep hydrated!

7. Bloody Show

If you notice clear, pink, yellow, brown, or blood-tinged mucus or discharge (kind of like your booger when you are sick), you might have just lost your mucus plug.

During pregnancy, the mucus plug acts like a cork that lodges in the cervical opening to protect your uterus from bacteria and pathogens. When your cervix starts to thin and relax near the end of your pregnancy, the mucus plug naturally falls out. The loss of mucus plug may not mean immediate labor; personally, for both pregnancies, I lost mine a couple of days before the onset of labor.

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Signs of True Labor.

The baby is on the way! If you experience these signs, labor is starting within the next few hours.

8. Strong and Consistent Contractions

Many pregnant mamas worry that they can’t tell the difference between real and false labor contractions. You can tell when the contractions are signs of real labor when:

  • They are regular and do not stop with changes in position or activity.
  • They follow a predictable pattern and gradually get more intense as labor progresses. They will get progressively closer, longer, and stronger over time.
  • You feel the contraction first in the lower abdomen or lower back. Then the pain radiates around the front or down into the legs.

9. Water Breaks!

Unlike what you see in the movies, rupturing of the amniotic sac (a.k.a. the water breaking) does not mean a flood of water all of a sudden hitting the floor in between your legs, shocking all your friends and family and maybe even splashing the shoes of random strangers.

In reality, only about 10-15% of pregnant women experience their water breaking, and the amount of water that comes out is equivalent to about ¼ of a cup (source). A lot of women mistaken the amniotic fluid for pee since they feel more of a drizzle than a gush sensation when their water breaks. And come on, let’s admit it, with the baby sitting on our bladders so close to the due date, we were peeing all over the place anyway.

I never experienced my water breaking naturally prior to labor, and for both of my births, my midwife had to break my amniotic sac to move the labor along. I did feel like she just popped a balloon inside me, and I could feel warm liquid gushing out between my legs, but I was already contracting for hours. Then the contractions got a lot more painful and stronger afterward, and I remember each contraction made me push out tons of amniotic fluid. Let’s just say that the floor got quite messy and lots of towels were necessary. Yeah, not my prettiest moment.

**If you started experiencing these early signs of labor prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy, contact your healthcare provider immediately. You may be experiencing signs of preterm or premature labor and need to be checked out by a doctor.

When Should I Go to the Hospital?

During early labor, you will experience mild to moderate contractions that last about 30 to 45 seconds, and around 20 to 30 minutes apart. Over the course of several hours, your contractions will begin happening at shorter intervals and gradually getting more and more uncomfortable.

Especially for new moms, it may be tempting to head to the hospital right away. My advice is to labor at home for as long as possible. Chances are if you go too early to the hospital, you will be sitting in the waiting room for hours or even be asked to go home.

Relax and labor at home until you contractions are consistently 5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute, for at least 1 hour (the 511 method). My doctor’s guideline was that I should go to the hospital when I am not able to talk through my contractions due to their intensity. Grab your well-packed hospital bags, your precious baby is coming!

Every Mom Experiences Different Signs of Labor

After 9 long months, the baby is due any day now, how exciting! Remember, every mom’s body is unique and you may not experience all of these signs of labor, especially the early ones. For example, I never experienced Braxton Hicks contractions with my first pregnancy. When in doubt, you can always contact your medical professional to check on your progress. Congratulations mama, you have made it to the final stage of the pregnancy!

What signs of labor did you experience? Let us know in the comments!

The big day is almost here! Find out what to expect when you start to experience the first signs of labor and when to head to the hospital.