What You Need to Know About Labor

Labor is one of the most beautiful things a woman can experience, and it can also be one of the most difficult. It’s important to be informed about what to expect from the process, what the warning signs look and feel like and what steps to take when a woman thinks she is in labor.

Common signs and symptoms of the end of pregnancy

  • An urge to “nest” or organize, clean and prepare for labor. Nesting can begin any time during pregnancy, but for some women, it’s a sign that labor will begin soon.
  • Feeling that the baby has dropped lower
  • Back pain, nausea or pelvic pressure
  • Fatigue

Signs and symptoms of active labor

The signs and symptoms feel different for every woman, but there are a few clear signs that the labor process has begun or will begin soon. Some of these include: 

  • Ruptured membranes or “water breaking”
  • Contractions, or the sensation that the uterus is tightening and relaxing is another sign of labor. Sometimes contractions are a true sign of labor, but sometimes they are Braxton Hicks contractions, which are more irregular and typically precede the real thing.
  • Dilation or opening of the cervix
  • During pregnancy, a mucus plug blocks the opening of your cervix to prevent bacteria from entering the uterus. Prior to labor, women often will lose their mucus plug as the cervix readies for labor and begins to dilate. This could mean labor is approaching within a matter of hours – or it could still be several days or weeks away. The mucus often just looks like vaginal discharge but can be clear, slightly pink or blood-tinged.

What are ruptured membranes? Am I in labor?

Ruptured membranes mean that your water has broken. The amniotic sac is a fluid-filled membrane that cushions your baby in the uterus. Most of the time, when your water breaks, it’s a sign that labor will begin soon.

What should I do if I’m in labor?

Call your healthcare provider! If you’re unsure about whether you’re in labor or what steps to take next, consult with your doctor or midwife. They will likely have you come in for an exam or direct you to the hospital. For more information, follow our labor instructions.

What are contractions? What do they feel like?

Labor contractions often start at 15 to 20 minutes apart and become progressively more frequent and increase in strength. With your first baby, contractions are not likely to cause progressive dilation of the cervix until they are four to five minutes apart and false labor is common. False labor contractions, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions, may be painful but are usually irregular, are less than 30 seconds in duration and do not become more frequent or regular with time.

Is there anything I can do to prevent pre-term labor?

Pre-term labor is typically based on family and personal history, including whether you’ve had a premature baby in the past. Other factors that can determine whether you go into labor early include having a multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets or more) or prior problems with the uterus or cervix. Things that can influence preterm labor include being underweight or overweight before pregnancy and getting pregnant quickly after giving birth, among other things. Avoiding smoking and stress will also help prevent pre-term labor.