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How To Recognize Signs Of Labor

Counting down the days 'til you meet baby? If you spot these signs, it could happen very, very soon!

You've been anticipating childbirth for the last nine months, so of course you’re anxious to be able to tell when the big moment is arriving. How will you know when it’s time to grab your hospital bag and get to the delivery room? Thankfully, your body will give you some solid clues. Read on to learn about the common signs of labor.

When Will I Go into Labor?

You have your baby’s due date—but a due date is just an estimate, and there’s really no telling exactly when baby will arrive. If you go into labor before 37 weeks of pregnancy, it’s considered preterm, but 90 percent of women go into labor between 37 and 42 weeks, according to William Schweizer, MD, clinical associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center. Depending on your doctor and your hospital’s policies, if you go past 41 weeks, you may wind up getting induced.

Signs of Labor

When you're body is getting into gear and preparing for birth, these are the signs of labor you'll want to look out for:

Expulsion of the mucus plug

Before baby can be delivered, your cervix has to thin out and open up, and as that happens, the mucus plug—a thick, mucus-like membrane that’s been blocking bacteria from entering your uterus—is pushed out. The mucus plug could come out all at once or little by little like a thick discharge.

Blood-tinged discharge

When your mucus plug is expelled, some of the surrounding blood vessels may burst, leading to slightly bloody discharge. Sometimes called the “ bloody show,” this discharge occurs when labor is anywhere from minutes to up to two weeks away, Schweizer says. If you picture the size of a quarter, it’s normal to see about 50 cents worth of blood, he adds. If the bleeding is as heavy as a period, let your doctor know right away.

Rupturing of the amniotic sac (aka water breaking)

Despite what movies will have us believe, the feeling of your water breaking (or the membranes of the amniotic sac bursting) can vary a lot, Schweizer says: It could be a minimal trickle, or more like a gushing sensation. It may even feel like you’re peeing—but if you squeeze your pelvic muscles and can’t control the leaking, it’s probably not urine. Keep in mind, though, not all women’s water will break—in fact, only about 10 percent experience a rupturing of the membranes. If your water breaks and you’re experiencing contractions, labor could be imminent. But if contractions haven’t set in yet, your doctor may want you to wait a few hours before coming in. If the liquid is red, brown or green in color, or if you see more than a quarter of a cup of fluid, call your doctor.

Regular contractions

False labor pains (aka Braxton Hicks) can sometimes be confused with real labor contractions, but they do have some distinct characteristics. If the contractions are irregular, centered in your lower abdomen or don't worsen over time, it might be a false alarm. Try changing position or walking around—does the pain recede a little? If it does, it’s probably not the real thing. Another sign it’s not yet time? If you can speak normally during the contractions. “Significant labor contractions are painful to the point where patients can’t talk through them,” Schweizer says. True contractions are also regular, have an obvious increase and decrease during fetal activity, and are centered in your pelvic area. If the contractions are coming on every five minutes or closer and each lasting more than 45 seconds, prepare yourself—labor is starting! Don't spend too much time analyzing, though: If you think you're in the early stages of labor, pick up the phone and call your doctor.