How do I know I’m really in labor?

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:

81 thoughts on “How do I know I’m really in labor?

  1. I got pretty frustrated at those “How to know if it’s really labor” lists. According to part of the lists (contractions strong, close together, involving the entire uterus, not just part, not changing with activity, etc.), I labor for months off and on, and according to other parts (“regular” contractions), I have not really been in labor, and I’ve had 3 babies now!

    As regular as my contractions get, (they can be pretty regular in practice labor–love that you don’t use the word “false!”–like about 2-5 minutes apart) but sometimes on labor day, they can be 4-15 minutes apart within the same few hours. So it was never very validating that it was real labor, even hours before my babies were born. I just had to wait it out, and I pretty much figured it out before the baby’s head was crowning.

    Those lists drive me crazy, though. My body must not have read that textbook!

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  4. I’m having really bad pressure and baby is moving like crazy but I have this upset stomack feeling and constantly feeling I have to pee not to mention 2weeks ago I was 2 cm …am I in labor?

  5. I am 34weeks and 3days and been having this lower back aches for 2weeks now,i’ve seen my caregiver on tuesday and she said it’s all normal but it’s killing me and my baby is also more active at nite so i find it difficult to sleep or i wake up by his kicks.with my firstborn i was induced at 41weeks that’s why i don’t know what it will feel like to be in labour or not

  6. My first born I didn’t feel any pain at all. With this baby. I’m having massive pain like crazy. I don’t know if i’m in labor or not. My baby is due in two Weeks and four days. I don’t really know what pain is what. I dont really know what to expect. Im a high pain tolerant and I can pretty much take any pain that comes my way. So I was wondering how does real labor pain start???

  7. Your website is one of the most helpful I’ve read on this subject since its based on your experience. I feel more relaxed now, like I will “just know”, as you said. Thanks for sharing.

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  9. Thanx for the part where you said : “the pain begins in your lower back and spreads like a band around your belly causing a peak of tightness and discomfort in the front and fades away again” my pains is more or less like those so now I know I’m in labor.

  10. Hi I am 36 weeks today with my second child. I have been having contractions pretty regular for two weeks & went to the hospital the other week from them progressing to 5 mins apart but u wasnt,dilated so they didnt keep me. I am curently a high risk patient & went to my apt yesterday & was dilated to 3. Today im feeling the tightness, severe cramping in the abdomen, presure, lightheaded & sick to my stomach at the same time. Im not,sure if im going,to have her soon or not. With my son theh had to stop my labor at 32 weeks & I had him at 36

    • It does sound like you’re having lots of labor signs. Have you been getting enough to drink and also eating enough protein? Some of your signs sound like dehydration or low blood sugar. Many women are dilated to three or so at this point in pregnancy, but with your history of preterm labor it might mean more for you. Best wishes and I hope you have a beautiful birth!

      • Yes I have been drinkin lots of water all day & have been eating as much as I have been & taking my prenatal vitimans. But I I was sitting down & my contractions were comin every few mins & I stood up to leave & all of that came at once as fter standing about 10 mins. & I have never experience that before but I dont want to keep takin as trip to the hospital. & it be nothing

  11. I am 25 weeks pregnant, so i am really starting to think about my “birthing plan” and how long i intend on staying home. I want to avoid any medical intevention and really if possible, want my labor and delivery to progress as naturally as possible while also not putting myself and my baby at risk. So my main reason for looking into what a “real” labor pain feels like, is so that i can be prepaired to keep myself calm, and wait to go in until i just can’t handle it on my own any longer. The way you worded your experiences puts my mind a little more at ease, and i will def. be thinking about these tips when the day comes for my little man to arrive! Thank you.

  12. I am 37 weeks and 4 days and i have been contracting all day at least it feels like it. I have tightness in my abdominal and pain in my lower back. It seems like I hurt really bad when he moves around. Currently I am considered to be high risk because I have hbp and gestational diabetes. I have 3 other kids and with each of them I was induced so I don’t know if this is the real deal. I have been feeling sick all day. Lightheaded and nauseous. What should I do?

    • Is there any chance that you’re dehydrated or have low blood sugar? Have you been getting enough sleep?

      It sounds like the contractions you describe are a promising sign, but I’m not sure from your description whether it is labor or not! What does your gut say? You might want to rest extra, or visit your health care provider for a cervical check. You can also check your cervix yourself and feel if there is any dilation! :) Congratulations on your upcoming baby and best wishes for a beautiful birth!

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  14. hi, i was just wondering if anybody could help me, i’m currently 33 weeks pregnant with me second child and my bump has dropped ever so slightly, i keep having what i’m sure are braxton hicks as they don’t last very long and aren’t exactly what you would call regular, I do however keep feeling a sharp stabbing pain in the bottom of my tummy and in my private parts every so often, my tummy feels quite heavy most of the time and i have quite alot of backache. I also have a wet and sometimes sticky feeling inbetween my legs alot of the time but when i go to the toilet theres never anything there?… im not quite sure whats happening, could anybody give me any advice please? Thanks in advance.

  15. Hi.
    Maybe you can help because whenever I call my docs office, my nurse blows me off like I don’t know what I’m talking about.. I am 35w 4d and yesterday when I went in I was 1cm and my cervix is weakening. This is my 3rd child. My 1st was 4w early(induced due to leaking amniotic fluid) and my 2nd 2 days late via c-section. Anyways my problem is- I can’t feel contractions. Never have. I’ve been told time and time again that when you contract your stomach tightens- I’m a small girl, all I feel is baby- ALL the time. With my 2nd, I went from 0/0 to 5cm/80% effaced in 3hrs and didn’t even know. Only found out because I went in to be induced 3hrs after my doc appointment. Being higher risk this time, I’m really worried that I won’t know when I go into labor and can’t risk going too far. Last night I believe I was having contractions every hour or so and then today I’ve been crazy nauseated, weak, shaky, crampy & I feel really warm but my temp. is normal. Any ideas on what could be going on?? T.I.A.!! x

    • Hmm. This is really interesting and tricky to figure out via the written word. Have you had any bloody show? Do you have any back aching/crampiness that feels located in your back? Some women primarily feel contractions in the back, so if you have a back “tightness” that comes and goes, that might a sign for you. Do you have a low down crampy sensation? Sometimes women will think they’re not having contractions, but when they actually touch their belly, they do feel that it feels hard or “balled up.” I’ve noticed sometimes women think it feels like it is the baby’s body/back “pushing out” and making their belly feel taut, but really it is the uterus tightening around the baby that they feel, rather than something the baby is doing. Good luck and best wishes for a beautiful birth! Congratulations!

      • Yes. I had some bloody show, along with pieces of my mucous plug – doc told me that it was from my exam, although it had been days since my last cervix exam. I have had constant lower back ache for over a week and at times it gets worse and more painful than just aches. I have been having lots of cramping and pressure in the front as well as a feeling of having to go to the bathroom but worse and I can’t go. I have been seen since and I’m only 1.5cm and 80% -have been for a week now. I have 2 weeks until my scheduled due date. They told me the pain is all my ligaments being strained because baby is already 7lbs 2oz and while being head down, her head is also 1.5w ahead in size so the pain is intense. Thanks!

      • Turns out I was in pre labor for 2 weeks and then had a beautiful, healthy baby girl on Feb 21 at 37 weeks. :)

  16. I am 39 weeks pregnant and i have been having slightly painful contractions all day. They seem to have gotten a little worse since the day has past and i feel as if i have pulled my groin muscle. Earlier today when i went to the bathroom i had my “bloody show” or what i think was my bloody show. My contractions have gotten a little closer together but they feel the same everytime. It’s just a tightening feeling that’s kind of painful. Walking doesnt seem to be helping them. I’m not sure whats happening. Could i be in labor?

    • This sounds promising–you are probably in early labor/pre-labor. Try a bath or shower and see if that creates any changes (either stopping or picking up progress). It is possible they will stop and you’ll still have a couple more days to go. Or, they may intensify as the night goes on! Best wishes for a beautiful birth and a wonderful, happy, healthy baby!

  17. Im not due until 2nd of April and last night I had a stabbing pain,on my left side its eased a little now but I now have a pain in my lower back and can feel that my baby is quite low please help x

  18. Hello i am pregnant with our 3rd little girl. Last night my contractions started along with pain in my legs. USUALLY my pain in my legs is caused from not enough water. i honestly am not dehydrated. Contractions have been since 11pm till today and being 1 – 5 minutes apart. still have achy legs. any comments?

    • I’ve had other people say that they felt contractions mainly in their legs, so that could be it. If you’re well hydrated already, the other possibility I’ve read about for achy legs (non labor) is the need for a calcium/magnesium supplement.

      Best wishes for a beautiful birth! :)

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  20. im 34 weeks today yesterday i was having bad lower back pains stomach pains with tightning and groin pain had my mucus plug come away a few days before tried a bath last night but didnt do anything and took paracetamol but nothing . managed to get some sleep woke up thinking they gone but i can feel the lower back pain coming on again what does this mean?

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  22. Hello I’m 7 months pregnate woke up at 6 with stomach pain couple hours after I had dehirria a couple of time, but the pain in my stomach is still there. I’m I having contractions or gas problems thanks

  23. Hi I’m 40 weeks and one day. I’ve been having alot of lower back pain near the tail bone contractions are they said 5-10mins apart and 50% effaced. I am having a lot of bleeding with discharge after two exams yesterday I am worried bout it. Not sure really wat I need to do. Help please.

  24. i’m 39 wks 3 day pregnant with my first child, my doc. gave me 21st of June. i’ve been having lower stomach pain since yesterday, but as at last week i had alot of lower back pain which was spreading like a band to my down belly which made me to feel as if am in labor and later fades away after 30 m. am worried & anxious to see my baby b/cos d scan don’t reveal d sex of d baby. Help pls.

    • This sounds like normal prelabor–your body is warming up and getting ready for your baby’s birth! This type of warm up can go on for several weeks as your cervix shortens and softens and your baby settles into position, ready for labor.

  25. Hello, I also heard that if a pregnant woman is too anxious to see her baby, that the EDD and labor will be longer than it suppose, is that true? am afraid. please help.

    • There is no evidence of that. Do keep in mind that the “normal” length of pregnancy for a first baby is 41w1day, so don’t get anxious or blame yourself if you’re still pregnant on your due date. It is very common! Babies are like fruit, best when ripe :) Your baby will come when it is ready! Best wishes!

  26. thanx alot i appreciate these encouragement. but please, advise me on which date to be expecting my baby b/cos d first scan dated 29 June, second– 24 June and third 27 June.

  27. I’m 36 weeks pregnant, and I’m in the middle of real labour and false. Like, The “contraction” pains are in my lower back and low stomach/vaginal area, plus I’ve been having lots of runny poohs but wouldn’t say its diarrhea because I’m not running for the toilet. But with my contraction like pains, one day they would be happening and starting to become more frequent, then I wont feel anything for half a day, then it would start up again and become more intense and frequent. So I’m in a piffle and have no idea what’s going on. My parent suggested going to the doctors and getting them to have a look, but I don’t wanna be a bother if it’s nothing. :/

    And suggestions on if I am or not in real or false labour.

  28. I’m 36 weeks pregnant as of today’ I’m currently getting contant backpain and tight twinges in my lower belly also shooting pains up my privates and a little diahrea… This is my 3rd pregnancy completely different to the other 2 I’ve had I had my 1st child at 37 weeks with just lower back pain my 2nd at 41 weeks with lower back pain and my plug came away.. I don’t know what to think now I’m sure its too early for me to go into labour now

  29. Im 36 weeks and 5 days I have been having reg contractions since last sunday (1 week ago today) im now having intense lower back pain along with abdominal cramping. All I drink is water. I have lost my mucus plug, && I have been very gassy lately. On Wednesday I was 2cm && 50% && at a -2 station. This is my second baby. I was so induced with my first at 41 weeks so idk what to think!!!

    • Its really mad’ because this pregnancy is so different to the two I’ve had yet there all boys.. I still have cramps twiches and all that its gets worse of a night its like the baby don’t want me to lay down (that’s on my back aswel the only way I was able to sleep now its no good) I feel asif the baby is kicking on my vagina contantly the midwife says its babys head isit that low down already I’m only 36 +2

  30. I’m almost 28 weeks now and for the past couple of days, I have had some tightening sensations in my lower stomach and stabbing pain in my groin area. I have been achy and crampy as well. I stay well hydrated, so I know that’s not the issue, but I am a bit constipated. I didn’t experience these sensations with my first baby as I was induced at 38 weeks due to some blood pressure issues. (I didn’t even know I was having contractions even when they were severe.) So, I’m not sure what is exactly going on. I just don’t want to be experiencing early labor signs and not know it. Could this just be practice labor?

  31. I’m 41 weeks pregnant, and I’m very frustrated about “knowing” when. I’ve experienced a lot of sensations during this, my first, pregnancy. I’ve had a bloody show, I’ve discharged my mucus plug…I seen to have gone through all the motions. But because he is a week late, I’m starting to push my other duties aside while I pay attention to all of my symptoms.

    I’ll cramp up, sometimes very bad, and even walking or showering doesn’t help. I’ll wait, because I am skeptical, and it ends up going away within 2-3 hours. So, I’m back to wondering what I’m looking for. I’ve tried the nipple stimulation, sex, dancing around, accupressure…just to even find a change in feeling. I’m really confused.

    Do you have any advice for me?

  32. I am 35 weeks and I have been having some strong back pains for about 5 hours now a few in the abdomien area, but mostly in the lower back. They are coming and going pretty strong. I have gotten up and walked, I have drank something cold, I have ate crackers and I am still having pains. I lost my muscus plug at 33 weeks and as of this past Tuesday (at doctors visit) I have dilated 1cm…..how do I know if this is “true labor”?

  33. Hi, I’m 33 weeks + 6, baby number 2. For the past 2 days I’ve been in hospital with strong contractions although my cervix hasn’t shown any signs of opening, I decided to monitor them at home instead of staying in hospital, when I sit down they ease off but when I’m active they come back strong again.. I’ve had Braxton hicks before but these contractions were alot stronger and regular and the nurse said there the real thing.
    I was induced at 42 weeks with my first child and I didn’t know you start having contractions and not go into labour. Has anyone else experienced this or has anyone got any advice about what might happen next, I’m anxious that this means I’ll be going into labour soon, or I’ll b having these pains for the next 6 weeks.

    Thanks :)

  34. Hi im 36 weeks and yesterday i had a sharp pain that lastest about 30 minutes and i couldnt walk but managed to make it to my bed what does this mean

    • thanx for the advice given to me by lady talkbirth “(There is no evidence of that. Do keep in mind that the “normal” length of pregnancy for a first baby is 41w1day, so don’t get anxious or blame yourself if you’re still pregnant on your due date. It is very common! Babies are like fruit, best when ripe Your baby will come when it is ready! Best wishes!)” the advice really help me a lot. I had my bouncing baby girl (Maimunat) successfully on the 2nd July 2013 at exactly 2: 00am on Tuesday. I SAY A VERY BIG THANK YOU TO LADY TALKBIRTH. Aisha…

  35. Hey I’m 38 weeks prego and dilated 2cm…I kept having to use bathroom last night. The baby had began to calm down a few weeks and all of a sudden he started moving around non stop and it would hurt in my back and belly and cause pain down there when he would move he would budge out like a huge knot in my belly I’m not sure if I’m in labor or its in my head

    • This sounds like practice labor/warm-up contractions to me. Pay attention to the sensations and see if they start to fall into a pattern! Your baby is getting ready to be born! :)

  36. hey im currently 19wks and 4days pregnant. first time mom. i know its probably just practice labor(and also not the baby doing it either)but all day ive been experiencing(not for the first time) tight uncomfortable pressure all around my stomach but mostly around my abdomen, i was at the mall walking around earlier today for a good hour or so and i had had a couple then and started up again right now, even as i type this, im laying down trying to relax after just getting back. drinking stuff doesnt help and seems didnt help with the walking either… not close together at all, and last a good 10-20 seconds or so.. ik its gotta be practice labor, but i just worry cuz i dont want to lose my baby, plus what was also weird, was when i was still walking the mall, i had had a glass of water and then went to the movies, right when we got up to leave there i knew my the pressure that for some reason i needed to go pee big time. i was right. longest of my life, lasted a whole minute, and was really clear, which was weird since i have been getting treated for a bladder infection the past few days…….. oh here we go again.. second one just come around, been 15 minutes. usually i only have like one every hour or two….

  37. I am Currently 35 weeks and 1 day its my first baby i’ve been haveing really bad lower back pain and abdominal stomach pain closer to my pelvic area it practically goes around in a circle from my lower back to my pelvic and everytime i pee i feel like something weird down there and i have a gushy liquid comeing out everytime i walk or sit is that normal ? Ive been feeling sick to my stomach for 9hours ive tried a nap , eating,a bath ,drinking water with ice and my pains dont go away i just get a really bad headache ….. can someone tell me what this means please ?

    • This definitely sounds concerning at 35 weeks and is worth a call to your care provider and possibly a visit to L & D or event to the ER.

      Best wishes to you!

  38. iam 28 weeks and 5 days today for the past few days i have been cramping in my lower back and having menstrual like cramps that feel as if my babys back is pressing against my belly making it hurt worse she is my second child and i was a week and a day late with my first so i was induced and dont know if my daughter is trying to come early i was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and when i was 23 week she tried to come out and i was put on bed rest . so i dont know if my cramping and back aches are just do to strain on my body or if they are labor. also three days ago i was in the bathroom and had finished peeing wiped and then a sweet cloudy type liquid came out and i have been having small mucus like discharges ever since

  39. i am 29 weeks pregnant have gestational diebeties and have been leaky aa sweet cloudy secretion for two weeks now when i was 23 weeks my blessing tried to grace the world and i was put on bed rest i have also been haveing pains in my abdomen and lower back i can barley walk to the park a mile away and i start cramping horridly and i am always overheating . also i dont know what labor would feel like cause i was induced with my first child he was a week and a day lat could anyone tell me whats going on

    • From what you describe with the sweet fluid and your previous history of being on bedrest, it definitely sounds like a visit to your doctor is in order. There is a chance the backache and crampiness you describe could be related to dehydration or to a bladder or kidney infection instead of labor, but it definitely sounds outside the range of normal. Trust your intuition and go to the primary doctor if you can or even to the emergency room. Best wishes for a beautiful healthy birth and baby in several months from now!

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