Signs of labor: Know what to expect

Do you know the typical signs of labor? Understand the changes your body will go through as you prepare to give birth.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

In the movies, babies are often born quickly and in dramatic fashion. The mother doubles over from the pain of a single contraction and suddenly the baby appears. In reality, however, labor usually takes time — and the early signs of labor can be subtle. Here's what you need to know about the common signs of labor.

Effacement: Thinning of the cervix

Before labor, the lower part of your uterus called the cervix is typically 3.5 cm to 4 cm long. As labor begins, your cervix softens, shortens and thins (effacement). You might feel uncomfortable, but irregular, not very painful contractions or nothing at all.

Effacement is often expressed in percentages. At 0 percent effacement, the cervix is at least 2 centimeters (cm) long, or very thick. Your cervix must be 100 percent effaced, or completely thinned out, before a vaginal delivery.

Dilation: Opening of the cervix

Another sign of labor is your cervix beginning to open (dilate). Your health care provider will measure the dilation in centimeters from zero (no dilation) to 10 (fully dilated).

At first, these cervical changes can be very slow. Once you're in active labor, expect to dilate more quickly.

Increase in vaginal discharge

During pregnancy, a thick plug of mucus blocks the cervical opening to prevent bacteria from entering the uterus. During the late third trimester, this plug might be pushed into your vagina. You might notice an increase in vaginal discharge that's clear, pink or slightly bloody. This might happen several days before labor begins or at the start of labor.

If vaginal bleeding is as heavy as a normal menstrual period, however, contact your health care provider immediately. Heavy vaginal bleeding could be a sign of a problem.

Nesting: Spurt of energy

You might wake up one morning feeling energetic, eager to fill the freezer with prepared meals, set up the crib and arrange your baby's outfits according to color. This urge is commonly known as the nesting instinct.

Nesting can begin at any time during pregnancy but for some women it's a sign that labor is approaching. Do what you must, but don't wear yourself out. Save your energy for the harder work of labor ahead.

June 18, 2016 See more In-depth