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Baby on the way: Know the signs of real labor

As your due date gets closer, mom-to-be, you'll want to know how to tell that the big moment has finally arrived. We're talking about real labor!  

Maybe you've already gone over this in a childbirth-preparation class, or perhaps your provider has walked you through it. But knowing what you should expect can help put your mind at ease. Find out what symptoms signal true labor. 

It's getting closer…

Some women may get signals that labor is coming a few weeks or hours before it actually starts. If you're one of these moms-to-be, you may notice: 

  • Lightening. You may feel that the baby has dropped lower into your pelvis. 
  • An increase in vaginal discharge. It might be clear, pink or blood-tinged mucus. 
  • Nesting. Some women suddenly have lots of energy and an urge to prepare their home for baby. 

And while you can't feel it, your body is getting ready for labor. Your provider may notice these changes during one of your regular checkups. For instance, he or she might see that your cervix is thinning (what doctors call effacing) and dilating (which means your cervix is opening). 

This is not a drill!

When true labor starts, the uterus begins to contract—tighten and relax to help your baby come out. But you may have had false labor contractions before. So how can you tell if it's real this time? According to the March of Dimes and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, here are some signs: 

  • Strong and regular contractions that get stronger and closer together as time goes by. If you time your contractions, you may notice that each one lasts about 30 to 70 seconds and that they get closer together over time. You feel the contractions start in the back and move to the front. Walking, resting or changing positions doesn't make them stop. In fact, true labor contractions can be so strong, they make walking or talking feel impossible. 
  • A reddish or brownish vaginal discharge, called a bloody show.
  • Your water breaking. There may be a trickle or a gush of amniotic fluid when your water breaks. When this happens, your baby may soon follow.

What you should do 

If you think you're in labor, call your provider immediately—even if your due date is still weeks away. 

Your provider can tell you if you should leave for the hospital or be seen in the office first. Your provider can also examine you and measure your cervix, if needed, to see how many centimeters it is dilated. By this time, you'll probably know for sure if you're really in labor. 

More pregnancy news

It's easy to be fooled by Braxton-Hicks contractions. Learn more about false labor and how to distinguish it from the real deal

Additional source: Office on Women's Health

Reviewed 1/31/2023

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