7 Ways to Tell You're in Labor

The signs of labor can be confusing for some women. While we see many shows on television or in movies about a woman who immediately knows she's in labor, real life is not often like that for moms. In fact, one of the most frequent questions pregnant women have asked is: "How will I know if I am in labor?"

There are signs of labor that you can learn about and watch for as the end of your pregnancy gets closer. While you might only have one or two of these symptoms or all of them, these are the basics of labor. Here are some of the top signs that labor is either coming soon or starting.


Pregnant Woman Holding Back
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A backache that seems to come and go may be a sign of labor. Usually, this is really contractions that you're feeling in your back. If your backache becomes constant or changes, you may be experiencing back labor, usually caused by the position of your baby. Back pain that is only during the contractions can be normal and is not considered back labor


You Just Don't Feel Right

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Sometimes you can't put your finger on it but something just isn't right. You don't quite feel well, but you don't have symptoms that you could necessarily tick off a list. Or perhaps you feel like you're getting the flu, sometimes this is also how labor starts. Remember that towards the end of pregnancy, resting up and staying well hydrated and nourished is always best, because you don't know when labor will start.

Bloody Show

Mucus Plug
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Bloody show is a pink, brown or red-tinged mucous that can be found when wiping while going to the bathroom or sometimes on your sanitary pad or underwear. This is a sign that your cervix is changing by dilating, thinning, or moving forward in preparation for labor. Don't be fooled! You can also see this after sex or a vaginal exam in late pregnancy — this isn't the same thing. Time to labor? Varies from hours to weeks. And yes, that's a real picture of a mucus plug with a bloody show!

Mucus Plug

An anatomical model of pregnancy
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The cervix is "plugged" with a thick piece of mucous that helps protect your baby during pregnancy by blocking the entrance to the uterus. As your cervix changes and dilates, part of the mucous plug can be released. How much you see depends on how quickly these changes occur. You might only notice an increase in discharge or you may find the whole "plug" at once during a trip to the bathroom. Time to labor? Weeks to hours.


Pregnant woman in bathroom
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Loose stools are caused by the release of prostaglandins in early which causes cervical effacement, softening, etc. Prostaglandins also can cause soft stools or diarrhea. Time until labor? Usually only a matter of a day or hours. Some say that this is nature's way of cleaning you out in preparation for the baby to be born.



Couple timing contractions
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Contractions are what helps the cervix to dilate and open for your baby to be born. Many women will have contractions that they notice throughout the end of their pregnancy. The difference between labor contractions and pre-labor contractions are the strength, frequency, and intensity of labor contractions. Labor contractions get stronger, longer and closer together. Some women will have a lot of contractions at the end of pregnancy, so it's important to remember that contractions are not the same thing as labor. If you are unsure, call your​ doula, childbirth educator, midwife, or doctor for a quick refresher on how to tell the difference.

Next Steps

Pregnant Woman Talking to Doctor
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If you still have questions about whether or not you are in labor, you can always call your doctor or midwife. Many of them are happy to talk to you on the phone to help you determine what is the best course of action for you. You can also call your doula to bounce ideas off of her as well as get tips on staying comfortable, even if it isn't labor. Remember, contractions do not always mean that your baby's arrival is near. Contractions are only one piece of the puzzle.

View Article Sources
  • The Labor Progress Handbook. Simkin, P, and Ancheta, R. Wiley-Blackwell; 2 edition.
  • Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. Gabbe, S, Niebyl, J, Simpson, JL. Sixth Edition.