When I was in early labor with my first son, I spent quite some time upstairs in our computer room googling, “how to know you’re really in labor” or, “signs of true labor,” or “the difference between false labor and real labor,” or, “how do I know I’m in labor,” or, “how to know I’m in labor.” I would do this between contractions and then when I had a contraction I would think, “Wow! This is definitely it!” Then, it would ease, and I’d start googling again, certain I must just really be experiencing “false labor.” One of my biggest fears was arriving at the birth center and only being two centimeters dilated (or possibly not in labor at all!). So, in honor of my former self, I offer a list of some ways to to gauge whether you are experiencing true labor.
It is true labor if/when:
- Your contractions fall into a regular pattern. And, that pattern involves contractions that are lasting longer, feeling stronger, and occurring closer together.
- If when you walk around or otherwise increase your activity, the contractions also increase.
- And if changing positions and drinking plenty of fluids also do not cause the contractions to ease…
- The sensation begins in your lower back and spreads like a band around your belly causing a peak of tightness and discomfort in the front and then fades away again.
- You have been feeling some gastrointestinal upset and may be experiencing diarrhea also.
- You have pinkish or blood streaked, mucousy discharge.
- Your membranes have ruptured (keep in mind that labor only begins in this way for roughly 10% of women. So, if your waters have not released, do not be discouraged thinking that you must not be in “real labor.” Many women do not experience their waters breaking until they are pushing or are starting to feel like pushing).
- Truly, I think that the best sign that you are in labor is if you really feel like you are in labor. This is one of those things that doesn’t feel that helpful to a first-time mom—”yes, but how will I know?! What if I’m in labor and don’t know it until the baby is coming out?!” I promise that for the wide majority of you, at a certain point, you will just know that you are in labor and there will be no more questions about whether this is “really it”—that is the best sign, when you stop wondering “is this really it?” My observation is that this point comes along when you enter active labor and enter your “birth brain” instead of your analytical, logical brain.
Is this really it?
If you are still wondering, “is this really it?” my best piece of advice is to ignore it! Pretend like nothing is happening. Go about your normal day and your normal routine. If you would normally be sleeping, sleep. If you would normally be eating, eat. Go for a walk, water the plants, feed the dog, bake something, go to the store, etc. When your contractions need your full attention, they will ask for it
Symptoms of pre-labor (“false labor”)
Some “symptoms” that what you are experiencing is instead practice labor, pre-labor, or “false labor” (I do not usually use the phrase “false labor” because I think it is dismissive of women’s experiences. All contractions are doing something and so I refer to them as “practice” rather than “false.” Another good phrase to use is “pre-labor” contractions. My midwife with my second baby referred to them as “toning contractions”):
- The contractions are irregular (no pattern) and are not increasing in frequency or intensity.
- If you change positions or drink two large glasses of juice, water, or tea, the contractions subside.
- The contractions center in your lower abdomen and do not involve your back.
- The contractions go away if you take a walk, take a shower, or lie down.
This is also a popular question in birth classes. Because labor is a new event for you, it can be hard to know what to expect until it actually happens! There is pdf handout here with some additional signs and information. There is also a helpful handout with a sort of flowchart of signs/symptoms here.
Oh, and by the way, when I did finally go to the birth center, I was 10 centimeters dilated and started pushing about 30 minutes later!
What about induction?!
On a closely related topic, why bother with all this guessing about whether or not you’re in labor? Why not be induced instead? Good questions! There are numerous reasons why you should let labor begin on it’s own—labor that begins on its own is usually safer and healthier for both mother and baby. Also, it is less painful than a labor that is induced with medications such as Pitocin. For more information about letting labor begin on its own, check out Lamaze’s Healthy Birth Practice #1, or this video clip from Mother’s Advocate: