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

On television, babies are often born with a rush of emotion and swift action. The mother doubles over from the pain of a single contraction, and the baby appears before the commercial break. In reality, however, labor usually begins less dramatically. Find out common signs of labor and what they mean for you and your baby.

Effacement: Ripening of the cervix

One of the first signs of labor is your cervix softening and thinning, or effacing. Most of the effacing happens in the last weeks before delivery, and you won't feel this preparation happening. Instead, your health care provider might check for signs of cervical change with vaginal exams.

Effacement is often expressed in percentages. At 0 percent effacement, the cervix is typically about 3 to 4 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 of the early signs of labor is your cervix beginning to open (dilate). Your health care provider will measure the dilation in centimeters from zero to 10.

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

Increase in vaginal discharge

Light spotting between weeks 37 and 40 of pregnancy could be a sign that labor is starting. Vaginal discharge that is pink or bloody is known as the bloody show. 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.

During pregnancy, a thick plug of mucus blocks the cervical opening to prevent bacteria from entering the uterus. When your cervix begins to thin and open, this plug might fall out. Losing the mucous plug is among the telltale signs of labor, but it's not a guarantee. Labor might still be days or weeks away.

July 18, 2013 See more In-depth