Feeling the baby has dropped lower
Lightening is the term used to describe when the baby's head settles deep into your pelvis. This might cause a change in the shape of your abdomen. This change can happen anywhere from a few weeks to a few hours before labor begins.
Rupture of membranes: Your water breaks
The amniotic sac is a fluid-filled membrane that cushions your baby in the uterus. At the beginning of or during labor, your membranes will rupture — also known as your water breaking.
When your water breaks you might experience an irregular or continuous trickle of small amounts of watery fluid from your vagina or a more obvious gush of fluid. If your water breaks — or if you're uncertain whether the fluid is amniotic fluid, urine or something else — consult your health care provider or head to your delivery facility right away. You and your baby will be evaluated to determine the next steps.
Once your amniotic sac is no longer intact, timing becomes important. The longer it takes for labor to start after your water breaks — if it hasn't started already — the greater you or your baby's risk of developing an infection. Your health care provider might stimulate uterine contractions before labor begins on its own (labor induction).
Contractions: When labor pains begin
During the last few months of pregnancy, you might experience occasional, sometimes painful, contractions — a sensation that your uterus is tightening and relaxing. These are called Braxton Hicks contractions.
To tell the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and the real thing, consider these questions:
- Are the contractions regular? Time your contractions from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next. Look for a regular pattern of contractions that get progressively stronger and closer together. False labor contractions will remain irregular.
- How long do they last? Time how long each contraction lasts. True contractions last about 30 to 70 seconds.
- Do the contractions stop? True contractions continue regardless of your activity level or position. With false labor, the contractions might stop when you walk, rest or change position.
Expect false alarms
Remember, no one knows for sure what triggers labor, and every woman's experience is unique. Sometimes it's hard to tell when labor begins.
Don't hesitate to call your health care provider if you're confused about whether you're in labor. Preterm labor can be especially sneaky. If you have any signs of labor before 37 weeks — especially if you also experience vaginal spotting — consult your health care provider.
If you arrive at the hospital in false labor, don't feel embarrassed or frustrated. Think of it as a practice run. The real thing is likely on its way.
June 18, 2016
See more In-depth
- Labor and birth. The National Women's Health Information Center. http://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/childbirth-beyond/labor-birth.html. Accessed June 13, 2016.
- Gabbe SG, et al. Normal labor and delivery. In: Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 13, 2016.
- Frequently asked questions. Labor, delivery, and postpartum care FAQ004. How to tell when labor begins. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. http://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/How-to-Tell-When-Labor-Begins. Accessed June 13, 2016.
- Herbst A, et al. Time between membrane rupture and delivery and septicemia in term neonates. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2007;110:612.
- Cunningham FG, et al. Physiology of labor. In: Williams Obstetrics. 24th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2014. http://www.accessmedicine.com. Accessed June 13, 2016.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Labor and delivery. In: Your Pregnancy and Childbirth Month to Month. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; 2015.