Labor Symptoms

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Woman having labor pains at hospital

From contractions to that nesting instict, labor symptoms can be confusing. It's important to understand the basics in order to tell if you're really in labor.

What About Those Contractions?

It is common to have days, if not weeks, of Braxton Hicks or 'warm-up' labor contractions.

  • Braxton Hicks contractions are usually not painful, though they might be uncomfortable. These contractions usually do not follow a pattern and tend to disappear if you move around.
  • These contractions can be very frustrating and confusing. Remember they are contractions and they are doing work. Your uterus is figuring out how to contract, and your body is getting the baby into position in your pelvis. These contractions might even soften your cervix and may even dilate you a centimeter or two.

True contractions are different. Women who have experienced lots of Braxton Hicks contractions will notice the difference.

  • True contractions make your whole belly hard and should be uncomfortable, if not painful. They often (but not always) start in your back and radiate forward.
  • The strength of the contraction can be determined by how hard they make your belly. Without a contraction, your belly should feel like your nose. During a medium contraction, your belly will feel like your chin. During a strong contraction, it will feel like your forehead.

Sometimes you might experience contractions as a painful backache that comes and goes or gets stronger and then weaker. If you're experiencing this, try to see if there's any pattern with the ache or if your belly gets hard every time your back starts to hurt.

How Will I Know It's the Real Thing?

Labor Symptoms

You probably won't know if the contractions are real for at least a few hours. If you notice you're having a lot of contractions, try not to worry if this is the real thing or false labor. However, you may notice other labor symptoms. If you do, you are probably in early labor.

  • Go through your daily routine as you normally would.
  • Eat high protein, high carbohydrate foods, and drink lots of fluids.
  • Keep yourself busy. Go for a walk, go to a movie, go shopping with a friend, or make a cake or lasagna.
  • Try not to get too caught up in timing the contractions. Don't light candles, turn on your relaxing music, or start relaxation techniques until you need to; otherwise you won't have that space when you really need it.
  • Sleep if you can, but rest if you can't.

Remember labor can take days to begin. It's very common to contract for a few hours and then stop for a while. You will know it's the real thing if the contractions move closer together and get stronger over time.

Labor Symptoms Other than Contractions

There are a few labor symptoms you may experience other than the contractions:

  • Nesting instinct: Some women experience a burst of energy and a strong cleaning instinct. They might reorganize the baby's room or rewash all the baby's clothes. Extreme examples include scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush or planting dozens of flowers in the backyard.
  • Loose bowel movements or nausea: These flu-like symptoms are a good indication your body is getting ready for labor.
  • Losing the mucus plug: If you've been contracting off and on for a couple of days, you might notice you're passing a great deal of blood-tinged mucus or you may actually see a clump of mucus in the toilet. If you see this, pat yourself on the back because your cervix has probably softened and might even have dilated a centimeter or two.
  • Extreme moodiness: Snapping at the people you love or bursting into tears over nothing is a very common labor symptom and a sign labor is about to begin.

What if My Water Breaks?

Labor Symptoms

Congratulations! This is a very clear labor syptom and indicates you will have your baby soon! You will know you've released your waters if you experience a gush of fluid from your vagina. Instead of a gush, you might leak a little bit of fluid, which is also called a high leak. Urine leakage in late pregnancy is often confused with a high leak. If you're not sure if it's urine or amniotic fluid, try to stop the leak with a Kegel. If it stops, it's probably urine. If it doesn't or you continue to leak small amounts of fluid for the next hour, your water has probably broken.

Because of the risk of infection, you should follow your care provider's instructions. Some will want you head into your birthing facility immediately; others will simply want a phone call.

Watch for Pre-Term Labor

If serious contractions, bleeding, or leaking occurs before 37 weeks, you should contact your doctor or midwife as soon as possible. Premature labor can feel like term labor, and it's a good idea to have it checked out at the birthing facility to a prevent premature birth if possible.

When Do I Go to My Birthing Facility?

You should follow your care provider's guidelines, but a good rule of thumb is that you should go to your birthing facility when contractions are about five minutes apart, last about a minute, and have been that way for about an hour. This is a guideline, not a rule. If you feel like you need to go to your birthing facility or you need to call your care provider, always do so!

Labor Symptoms