How do I know when I am really in labor? In my experience, it was hard to know the difference from practice to real. A third time veteran and I was still tricked. I bring help in hopes of deciphering the code of pre-labor (Braxton-Hicks) and real labor (baby producing).

I want too quickly touch on the physiological change that occurs in your body while getting ready for delivery and true labor. As your body prepares for delivery, your cervix will begin to ripen as your body releases a hormone prostaglandin (also found in sperm). Your cervix will come forward (anterior) from where it has been all pregnancy (posterior). The cervix shortens (effaces) and then opens (Dilates).

At the beginning part of the birthing process, the most active part of your body is the primitive (limbic) part of the brain (Spatafora, 2009. 161). This part of the brain releases the hormones that queue your uterine muscles to open and help move the baby down.

Pre-labor is often a confusing and frustrating event that can leave a women worried that she will not know when her labor really hits. As seen on TV, go into labor and immediately fall to the ground, start rolling around, just out of reach of the phone, while screaming. Bum bum buuuum. This is untrue of labor, and this fear factor is just not helpful for us women. Often times the transition from pre-labor to active labor is subtle and gradual. For few women, this shift is obvious if their membranes rupture, or if there contractions begin suddenly and intensely (Simkin et al. 2010)

According to Ina Mae Gaskin, Midwife and author of Spiritual Midwifery says that signs of impending labor are; baby drops further down into mother’s pelvis also called lightening. This happens 2-3 weeks before delivery, increase of vaginal discharge or juices are present. Mothers often have to wear liners. Mucus plug will be released. This means the cervix has dilated enough to let it go. Most women don’t see there mucus plug because they lose it in chunks in the toilet, at night, or just wipe it away after they urinate. When the mucus plug is seen, it can be streaked with blood “Show” because of the capillaries breaking in dilation.

Signs and Symptoms

Possible Signs (late pregnancy changes)

Vague nagging back ache causing restlessness- a need to keep changing positions (different from the fatigue back ache).

Several soft bowel movements- sometimes accompanied by flu-like sick feelings.

Cramps, similar to menstrual cramps that come and go; the discomfort may extend to the thighs (may go away several times over the weeks and gradually become positive signs).

Unusual burst of energy resulting in great activity, this is termed as nesting. (Careful here not to overdo it, you’re going to need this energy for the real thing.)


Preliminary or pre-labor signs

Blood-tinged mucus discharge (show or mucus plug) released from the vagina; mother continues passing this discharge off and on throughout labor

Bag of water leaks, resulting in a trickle (not a gush) of fluid from the vagina.

Continuous non progressing contractions- that is, they do not become longer, stronger and closer together over a period of time. These are termed pre-labor or Braxton-Hicks


Positive signs

Progressing contractions- that is, contractions that become longer, stronger and closer together. These usually continue until it’s time to push.

Spontaneous breaking of the bag of waters with a pop or a gush of fluid followed by progressing contractions within hours.


When you believe you are or may be in labor, time your contractions. No need to sit there for hours timing, time a few like 5 or 6 then wait a few hours then time again. This should give you an indicator of how much closer they are, and if they are real or not. If you are in pre-labor drinking a big glass of water, changing positions or a bath often relives you of the discomfort. You can also call your doula for some tips on comfort measures.

I hope this helps, but if you are still unsure you can always contact your doula or care provider.

Please see my printable section for how to time contractions.






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