As a person with a vagina, you get used to vaginal discharge happening seemingly out of the blue. Maybe it means your period is coming, or that you’re ovulating, or maybe it just means you’re human. But when you’re pregnant, every gush of fluid could be important, especially when you’re nearing the 40-week mark. In your third trimester, you may be wondering, is brown discharge a sign of labor? Read on to find out what experts say.
Is brown discharge a sign of labor?
Like so much about pregnancy, the answer to this question isn’t totally universal for every person. “It is quite possible that a bloody or brownish mucoid discharge may be a sign that the cervix is dilating and the mucus plug may be in the process of being expelled,” Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, double board-certified in OB/GYN and Maternal Fetal Medicine, Director of Perinatal Services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln tells Romper. But if you see some brownish or rust-colored discharge when you wipe or on your underwear, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to pack your hospital bag and prepare to give birth within a day or two.
“It is not uncommon to experience all sorts of discharge near the end of pregnancy," Megan Davidson, a Brooklyn-based doula and author of Your Birth Plan, tells Romper. "The mucus plug, for example, can begin to come out as discharge when your cervix is starting to change in preparation for birth. I’ve had clients lose parts of their mucus plug for weeks before labor and this is normal.”
What is the mucus plug? It may have a terrible name, but it has a really important function. “The mucus plug is a mucus collection (it looks like a clear, yellow, or brown blob of jelly) that keeps the cervical canal moist and protected, Dr. Lucky Sekhon, fertility specialist and board certified OB/GYN from NYC, tells Romper. “Secretions from the cervix collect and seal the canal with a thick plug of mucus which blocks the entryway to the uterus.” This acts a protectant, sealing the uterus from bacteria, but when it passes it can sometimes be brownish in color.
Is discharge during pregnancy normal?
“An increase in vaginal discharge is common in pregnancy," Natalie Nix, CNM, MSN, Certified Nurse Midwife at Roswell OB/GYN in Atlanta, GA, told Romper in a previous article. "This is how the vagina 'keeps itself clean' in preparation for labor,” she added, but it can still be alarming, especially when tinged with brown that looks a bit like blood. Discharge is usually nothing to worry about, but if it’s accompanied by pain or cramping, or something feels off to you, always check in with your doctor or nurse.
Other signs of labor
Brown discharge during pregnancy, especially toward the end, may be a sign that your mucus plug has or is passing, but it’s not definitely a sign that labor is imminent. It could just mean that your doctor recently checked your cervix for signs of progress, or even that you had sex recently. "If you’ve recently had an internal exam, the exam can cause cramping, discharge of mucus, and small amounts of bleeding — but this is not necessarily the beginning of labor," Davidson tells Romper.
So what are more definitive signs of labor? These will vary by person and by pregnancy, but “early signs of labor may include back or lower abdominal pain, rupture of membranes, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting. For any of these symptoms, inclusive of the brown, bloody discharge, it’s best to seek medical attention,” Gaither says. If labor is happening, you may experience contractions that are occurring at regular intervals and feel more intense than Braxton Hicks, Sekhon says. Your water may break like you see in the movies, but it also may not.
So, if you experience brown discharge during your third trimester, it could mean that labor is close, but most likely you still have time to finish decorating the nursery and washing all those adorable clothes.
Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, double board-certified in OB/GYN and Maternal Fetal Medicine, Director of Perinatal Services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln
Megan Davidson, a Brooklyn-based doula and author of Your Birth Plan
Dr. Lucky Sekhon, fertility specialist and board certified OB/GYN from NYC
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