7 Ways to Tell You're in Labor

Or at least that you soon will be

For most pregnant women, the experience of going into labor isn't nearly as dramatic as portrayed in the movies or on screen, in which actresses suddenly clutch their bellies in pain and head to the hospital. In fact, the signs of impending labor tend to be subtle and even confusing, particularly for first-time moms-to-be. What's more, many of them can appear days or even weeks before the impending birth, rather than out of the blue. Here are seven of the more subtle signs that your body is preparing to go into labor.

1

You Have a Backache

Pregnant Woman Holding Back
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This one is tricky because it's possible your back has been achy ever since your belly got big enough to make sitting, sleeping, standing, and walking uncomfortable. But back pain that seems to come and go may be a sign that labor is near. You may be experiencing back labor, in which contractions are more focused in your lower back than in your abdomen because of the position of your baby. And particularly if this isn't your first pregnancy, you notice pain and crampiness not only in your low back as labor approaches but also in your groin that's caused by stretching and shifting of muscles and joints in preparation for childbirth.

2

Your Ligaments Loosen Up

Woman resting hand on belly in bed
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Throughout your pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin is released. It serves to loosen up the connective tissue that holds the bones of the joints together so that when it's time for you to deliver your pelvis will yield and open to allow your baby to travel through the birth canal. The thing is, relaxin effects all the joints in the body, so particularly as you near time to have your baby you may feel a bit clumsy. 

3

You Lose Your Mucous Plug

Mucus Plug
Photo © Michelle Steele

During pregnancy, the cervix (the entrance to the uterus) becomes blocked with mucous to help protect the developing baby. Once labor is underway and the cervix begins to dilate (enlarge), this mucous plug may be released. It may come away all of a piece or in small pieces that you don't even notice. It may appear as what is called bloody show—pink, brown, or red-tinged discharge that you notice on your underwear or toilet paper after you urinate. If you happen to be aware of when your mucous plug comes out or you notice bloody show, it could mean that labor is just a few hours away—or it could mean you still have weeks to go. 

4

You Develop Diarrhea

Pregnant woman in bathroom
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Is it the spicy Mexican food you ate last night? Or a signal that your baby is on the way? Loose stools or diarrhea can be a sign of impending labor caused by the release of hormones called prostaglandins, according to the Endocrine Society. Having the runs a day or two before labor starts also is the body's way of emptying the bowels to allow the uterus to contract efficiently.

5

You Have Contractions For Real

Couple timing contractions
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A contraction is a squeezing and releasing of the uterus that encourages the cervix to dilate and helps to push a baby down through the birth canal. Many women have mild contractions called Braxton-Hicks contractions for weeks before going into labor. These "false" contractions aren't strong or regular and tend to come and go—sometimes in response to hunger or dehydration. Labor contractions get progressively stronger, longer, and closer together and usually feel like a tightness that starts in the back and moves around to the front of the lower belly. The more intense they become, the harder it will be to even talk while a contraction is in progress. 

6

You Need to Nest

You may experience a sudden burst of energy just before you go into labor that has you running around like a madwoman, stocking up on groceries, reorganizing closets, scrubbing the inside of the fridge, folding and refolding baby clothes, straightening the bedding on the crib just one more time. This is called nesting and it happens to many expectant moms as their due date looms near. Some women feel just the opposite—tired and weary, as if they're coming down with the flu.  Either way, take care of yourself: Eat well, get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and save some energy for the big day: You'll need it. 

7

You Feel As if the Baby Has Dropped

Pregnant Woman Talking to Doctor
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This sensation, also called "lightening," actually does mean that your little one has settled deeply into your pelvis, making his or her way toward the cervix in preparation to push through and be born. It can happen from a few weeks to a few hours before you actually go into labor. When your baby does drop, you may find you can breath more easily​ since your baby will have moved away from your lungs—but you also may have to pee more often, since there will be increased pressure on your bladder. 

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