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Here's How To Tell If Your Contractions Are The Real Deal

As you creep closer towards the end of your pregnancy, you might start eyeing your bump suspiciously. Every little leak takes on a grander meaning, and every tiny ache might feel like the onset of labor can be hard to tell if the show’s started. So what are the most common signs of labor? It can honestly be hard to tell if what you're experiencing is the real thing or a false alarm.

“We’ve all seen the following scenarios in movies or television shows: a pregnant parent is walking along, maybe in a store, minding her own business, when all of a sudden there’s a dramatic gush of water. This is usually followed by immediate and painful contractions and a dramatic and fast rush to the hospital where the baby is quickly born,” Shelly Taft, LPN, IBCLC, a licensed practical nurse and international board certified lactation consultant tells Romper in an email. “But for most parents, that’s not how labor usually begins.”

So if there isn’t a dramatic (and ill-timed) gush of water, how do you know if you’re really in labor? These signs are a surefire way to tell that baby is on the way.


Increase In Contractions

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Towards the end of your pregnancy, you might find yourself feeling some contractions here and there. And while some might be downright painful, they’re not usually a sign to head to the hospital, especially if they’re inconsistent. But there is a way to tell if the contractions you're having are the kind that mean business.

“First and foremost, the true sign that labor has begun is contractions that don’t stop when you get up and move around and start to form a pattern,” Mindy Cockeram, LCCE CLEC, a childbirth educator and author of Cut Your Labor In Half: 19 Secrets To a Faster and Easier Birth, tells Romper in an email. "We use the 4-1-1 rule (contractions 4 minutes apart lasting at least a minute for 1 whole hour as a guide for when to get in the car and go).” It’s important to note that you can start dilating (even up to a few centimeters), but without having contractions, you’re technically not in labor.

Angie Marchinkow, a DONA International certified birth doula in British Columbia, Canada, agrees. “The way to tell the difference between pre-labor and labor contractions is their strength and consistency; some pre-labor contractions can come on from exerting a lot of energy, maybe while out on a hike or walk, or even driving down a bumpy dirt road!” she says. But a true testament that it’s really happening are constant contractions. “Labor contractions do not go away — in fact, walking around and being active helps them get nice and strong and consistent!” If you’re unsure about the frequency, you can always time your contractions to see how far apart they are.


Water Breaking

Just like in the movies, sort of, that gush (or trickle) of water means your baby is en route. “Getting a hole in the amniotic sac (‘water breaking’) that causes a trickle (low rupture) or a gush (high rupture) is a sign that labor is soon but is not actually a sign that labor has begun,” says Cockeram. “Evidence-based studies vary but it is estimated that between 5 to 15% of women’s amniotic sacs rupture before labor begins.” And while your water breaking might make you want to head to the hospital, if your labor doesn’t start within a few hours, you might be induced, anyway.


Increased Vaginal Discharge

Feeling a little goopy in your girly parts is also another telltale sign you’re your body is prepping for labor. “Although it is not one many like to talk about, many women will experience an increase in vaginal discharge in the days leading up to labor,” says Cockeram. It usually goes hand-in-hand with the loss of the mucus plug, What To Expect explained. While it might make you feel a little gross, just wipe it away and know that your baby will soon be in your arms.


Losing Mucus Plug

You go to the bathroom and wipe yourself when you notice that there’s what looks like a mound of mucus on the TP. If your body is prepping for labor, chances are you’re looking at your mucus plug, which acts as a barrier between the cervix and the amniotic sac housing your baby. “The release of the mucus plug happens as the cervix thins and can indicate the labor is near, although not always,” says Taft. “Some parents notice they lose the mucus plug while voiding, and some parents don’t notice losing it at all.” While it doesn’t mean that labor is starting right then and there, losing your plug is a good sign that it’s happening in the near future. Thing is, you might not even notice that your plug has come out, especially if it falls into the toilet or just gets flushed away, or comes out gradually (also a common experience).


Tummy Troubles

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If you find that you’re going number two more often, your body might be getting ready for labor day. “The body often naturally tries to clean out the colon in preparation for birth,” says Taft. “Many parents experience an increase in bowel movements, and report softer bowel movements as well.” So if you’re pooping more, know that it’s perfectly normal — and hopefully you won’t poop while giving birth (although that can be a good thing, too). Adds Marchinkow: “Usually within 24 hours of labor, her body often prepares for birthing by emptying her digestive system, with her stool becoming more watery like diarrhea, getting everything out of the way for baby to come down.”

While every labor is different, the above indicators are common signs that yours will be happening soon.


Shelly Taft, LPN, IBCLC, licensed practical nurse and international board certified lactation consultant

Mindy Cockeram, LCCE, CLEC, childbirth educator and author

Angie Marchinkow, a DONA International certified birth doula