Am I In Labor?
These Are The Real Signs of Labor, According To Experts
9 ways your body is trying to tell you you’re in labor... and 6 ways it’s not.
When it comes to late-stage pregnancy, there are two camps of thought: either you want to stay pregnant forever and keep that close connection to your baby— or you are just so totally, completely, and utterly done that you want to give birth right now. No matter which way you stand, at some point you’re going to have to deliver, and so knowing the signs of labor can help you determine when childbirth may occur.
There are so many changes that happen to your body, particularly at the end of pregnancy, that it might be hard to discern what’s a true sign of labor and what’s just an everyday ache. Sure, there are the obvious, common signs of labor from continuous contractions to your water breaking to let you know that the big event is on its way, but there are also early indications of labor and more subtle signs of labor that are easier to miss. Knowing what to watch out for can help you prepare physically (and mentally) to deliver your baby.
If you have a sensation that you might poop your pants, it might not be that burrito you ate — it could be the onset of labor, Dr. Peace Nwegbo-Banks, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN tells Romper. Diarrhea is a sign of labor, especially if it’s accompanied by other symptoms. “If it is in the setting of regular uterine contractions, it can indicate the onset of labor,” she says. So keep track of how many times you’re dashing to the bathroom because of diarrhea, and call your medical provider to see if it’s go time.
Sure, the thought of having to deliver your baby might make you feel like you want to puke, but if you’re actually nauseous, your body might be getting ready for labor. When it comes to early signs of labor, nausea is definitely at the top, Dr. Nwegbo-Banks explains. “When you have uterine contractions that are regular and steady accompanied by nausea, it can be a signal that labor is underway,” she says.
Things can get a little goopy in your lady parts as pregnancy progresses. Your vaginal discharge might increase, and then there’s always the loss of your mucus plug and eventual water breaking to contend with. But if you’re noticing some brown discharge coming from your vagina, get ready to welcome your baby sometime soon. “Brown discharge is old blood that has traveled down the vagina,” says Dr. Nwegbo-Banks. “If mom is experiencing discharge and regular uterine contractions for two hours or longer, this could be a sign of labor.”
The Bloody Show
If you go to the bathroom and see what looks like a blob of yellow or brown snot on the toilet paper, you’ve probably passed your mucus plug. Not to be confused with the bloody show, your mucus plug is a small mound of mucus that blocks off your cervix during pregnancy. It’s meant to protect your little one from any potential infection. It might come out days or even weeks before labor begins.
But your bloody show, on the other hand, is a sign that something is shifting down there. “The bloody show is when the cervix is dilating and can sometimes cause bleeding,” says Dr. Nwego-Banks. “This is associated with actual labor and it's painful.” It can look like mucus that is colored pink or brown (because of blood). While losing your mucus plug can happen way in advance of labor, spotting the bloody show means that your cervix is starting to dilate and efface in preparation for Baby’s arrival.
Maybe it’s been a minute (or more like nine months) since you’ve done abdominal crunches, but don’t be surprised if you start feeling like your abs are getting a workout closer to delivery. “You can expect to feel cramping when labor is about to begin,” explains Dr. Kimberly Langdon, MD, an OB/GYN. “You might feel tightening of the abdomen as felt through the abdominal wall.” If you put your hands on your belly and feel it starting to shrink as it contracts, well, you might want to have your hospital bag ready.
Listen, you’re probably in the loo a lot more lately. But if there’s liquid coming out of you that’s uncontrollable (meaning you can’t tame the trickle), there’s a good chance that your water broke. “When labor begins, there can be a leakage of clear fluid, and it’s usually more than a dribble,” says Dr. Langdon. Can’t tell if it’s pee? Then see if it passes the smell test: urine will have a yellow color and smell like, well, pee (or ammonia). But if the liquid is odorless (or even sweet-smelling), and is somewhat clear, it’s most likely amniotic fluid.
Cervical Changes: Effacement & Dilation
Although this isn’t something that you can easily see, a sign of labor approaching is that your cervix undergoes its own transformation in preparation for birth. “True labor must be accompanied by cervical change such as thinning, softening, or dilation,” Dr. Langdon explains. And it’s during these changes that you’ll often experience the other symptoms, such as your contractions, belly tightening, your water breaking, and the appearance of the bloody show.
As if you didn’t have enough pinches and pains to contend with, along comes lightning crotch to crush them all. “Lightning crotch is essentially contraction pain that radiates to the vagina,” says Dr. Nwegbo-Banks. And while the idea of pain shooting to your vag might freak you out, it may make you feel better to know that lightning crotch is an indicator that another storm (i.e. labor) is a-brewing. “Regular pangs (i.e. every 5-10 minutes) of lightning crotch for two hours can indicate the onset of labor,” she says.
Sure, you might experience a whole bunch of aches and pains during pregnancy, but one sign that you might be in labor is having some achiness in your back. “One of the main signs/symptoms of labor is a low backache,” Dr. Kim Langdon, MD, an OB/GYN tells Romper. While the pain might not be persistent, if you find yourself rubbing your lower back frequently (and your due date is approaching), your body might be getting ready for delivery, Parents reported.
The following are not signs and symptoms of labor
Feeling nervous is a totally normal feeling in anticipation of labor and delivery. But is it a sign that it’s imminent? Not necessarily. While being stressed out and anxious in the days or weeks before your due date, there’s no real correlation between anxiety as a sign of labor, Dr. Nwego-Banks says. “Labor pain can make women anxious however,” she says.
If you thought that diarrhea was a surefire symptom of labor, then its wicked stepsister, constipation, must also be a sign, right? Wrong. "Constipation is not a sign of labor, but it is a very common symptom of pregnancy," Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, OB/GYN at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center tells Romper. "Bowel motility (the speed that stool moves through the gut) is slowed down by the hormones of pregnancy, and more fluid gets absorbed."
Dr. Langdon agrees. “Constipation is a sign of pregnancy, but not labor per se,” she says. “However, you may feel more rectal pressure after the baby drops and this can simulate constipation.” But if you’re totally, um, backed up, you can talk to your doctor about ways in which to bring on a bowel movement that will be safe to do while pregnant. .
Losing Your Mucus Plug
The mucus plug is a pivotal part of pregnancy. Like its name suggests, it’s a large “plug” within the cervical canal that is shed shortly before or during labor. That said, there’s no guarantee that losing your mucus plug means that labor is coming. “A woman can lose her mucus plug weeks to months before the onset of labor,” explains Dr. Nwegbo-Banks. “It does not indicate labor if mom is comfortable and without regular uterine contractions.”
Still, when your mucus plug dislodges, it’s definitely a sign that labor likely isn’t too terribly far off. “Even though some people may lose their plug weeks before the baby is born, I like to think of it as a sign your body is moving in the right direction,” Jada Shapiro, a birth doula, maternal health expert, and founder of Boober tells Romper. “If you are also experiencing sensations in your cervix which come and go (i.e. contractions) even if they are quite far apart and you release your plug, it's a good sign that you are experiencing early labor.”
Thinking about all the things that you have to do before your baby is born can definitely make your head feel like it’s swimming. But while headaches during pregnancy might be pretty common, your headache isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re going to give birth anytime soon.
That said, headaches during pregnancy should be taken seriously, according to Dr. Nwegbo-Banks. “Headache can be a sign of preeclampsia, which can occur when mom is going into labor,” she says. “It is important to get blood pressure checks if mom is pregnant and experiencing headaches.” If you’re having headaches, try drinking water or resting to see if that resolves the issue. But if your headache gets worse, talk to your doctor, since it could be a sign of something more significant. Adds Dr. Langdon: “Any headache in the late second or third trimester warrants a call to the doctor.”
Pregnancy has a funny way of messing with your meals. Either you’re feening for some food, or you can’t stand the sight of something you once loved. That burning sensation you get after you eat is extremely common, with 17%-45% of pregnant women reporting having experienced heartburn, a study published in the National Institute of Health reports. In terms of heartburn being a sign of labor, though, it’s not always necessarily the case. “Moms can have heartburn while in labor, but it is not typically a sign of labor,” says Dr. Nwegbo-Banks. “In the setting of elevated blood pressures and heartburn, this can indicate preeclampsia.”
Braxton Hicks Contractions
On their own, contractions can be a complicated way of figuring out if labor has actually started. After all, Braxton Hicks contractions are like your body’s way of preparing for labor, but are actually a false alarm. And since they’re confusing at best, you might think that it’s time to break out the birth plan when actually, you could have them anywhere from your second or third trimester.
That said, at some point contractions will be one of your biggest indicators that labor has begun. “When it's time to have a baby, the biggest signs are painful contractions with cervical dilation,” explains Dr. Nwegbo-Banks. Other signs of labor include regular contractions about every five to 10 minutes in the abdomen and may radiate to the vaginal area and to the lower back.” If you’re unsure if it’s the real deal, try timing the contractions to see if they’re consistent. “It’s the strong, rhythmic, consistent contractions approximately every two to five minutes during labor that dilate the cervix and lead to birth,” says Eden Fromberg, a holistic OB/GYN and women’s health specialist.
What To Do When You Think You're In Labor
When all the signs seem to indicate that it’s showtime, you’ll need to get yourself together. First, you should time your contractions, advises Dr. Nwegbo-Banks. “When it's time to have a baby, the biggest signs are painful contractions with cervical dilation,” she says. “Other signs of labor include regular contractions about every five to 10 minutes in the abdomen and may radiate to the vaginal area and to the lower back.” If you’re unsure if birth is imminent, you can always call your OB/GYN or midwife and give her an update on your status. Just be sure to grab your hospital or birthing bag so that you have everything you need prior to Baby making its debut.
It can be hard to know what is a true sign of labor — and what’s a typical pregnancy pain. But by being aware of all of the signs of labor, you’ll be ready to bring your beautiful baby into the world with hopefully a quick and relatively painless labor and delivery. .
Raines, D., Cooper, D. (2021). Braxton Hicks Contractions. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470546/
Vazquez, J. (2015). Heartburn in pregnancy. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26348641/
Dr. Peace Nwegbo-Banks, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN
Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, OB/GYN at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
Dr. Kimberly Langdon, MD, an OB/GYN
Jada Shapiro, a birth doula, maternal health expert, and founder of boober
Eden Fromberg, a holistic OB/GYN and women’s health specialist