Labor & Delivery | Recognizing the Signs of Labor

Is it time? Has labor started?

This is it. Nine months of pregnancy have all led up to this one event. The birthing classes and breathing techniques sit at the back of your mind ready to be brought into action. The midwife waits in the wings for the final moments of bringing your baby into the world. Ah, the wonderful and oh-so-necessary part of childbirth – labor.

But wait! How can you tell if labor has begun? Many women experience similar symptoms, while some others have no idea until they feel the urge to push.

When it comes down to it, labor is a very individual process.

When it comes down to it, labor is a very individual process. No one knows that fact better than Crystal Irwin, a mother of three from Pasadena, Calif. Although her body was exhibiting the classic symptoms of labor, her lack of pain during the process led her to believe it couldn’t possibly be labor. She and her husband couldn’t even make it out of the garage before she gave birth to her son, Michael, in a matter of minutes.

Sheri Menelli, author of Journey into Motherhood: Inspirational Stories of Natural Birth (White Heart, 2005), has compiled many such birthing stories in her book and knows just how individual labor can be. Recounting an experience of her own, Menelli says, “…[A] few hours before labor started I was famished! I could not get enough to eat. I guess my body was storing up energy for what was about to happen.” The body certainly knows best. The key to preparing for and managing labor effectively is knowing just what sorts of bodily signals indicate labor is near. And while labor and delivery are personal processes, the signs are typically universal, but listening to what your body has to say is the real key.

Labor on the Way

So what will your body do to indicate labor isn’t far off? These signs and signals are some of the most commonly experienced by laboring women:


This one may seem obvious, but contractions are a definite sign of labor. Contractions can be described as a tightening of the uterus “that won’t go away when you move positions,” says Menelli. They typically begin as mild wave-like movements in the uterus starting at about 15 minutes apart and then becoming less than five minutes apart, according to the OB/GYN department of the Cleveland Clinic. The abdomen becomes very hard during contractions and remains soft in between. Some women experience only mild discomfort while others may experience pain akin to intense menstrual cramping.

Amniotic Membrane Rupture

More often referred to as your “water breaking,” the rupture of the amniotic membrane may feel like a rush of fluid from the vagina or a slow leak. When your water breaks, labor is likely to start soon after if it hasn’t already. Just be sure to note that you can be in labor without your water breaking.

Bloody Show

As the cervix continues to dilate during labor and contractions increase in intensity, more blood may be released from the vagina. This appearance of blood is called a “bloody show” and indicates labor is nearing the birthing phase.

Abdominal Cramping

Not to be confused with contractions, abdominal cramping may be your body’s way of cleaning itself out before labor, says Menelli. Diarrhea is also a common labor precursor.


Occurring a few weeks or a few hours before labor, lightening is when the baby lowers into the pelvis. A need to urinate more frequently is often a sign of lightening and that labor is just around the corner, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Mucous Plug

As the cervix begins to dilate, the mucous plug will be expelled from the vagina. It may appear to be clear or slightly bloody, and labor may begin soon after or up to a few weeks later.

Calling the Doctor, Midwife or Doula

Regardless of your birth plan, it is typically advisable to notify your health care provider when your water has broken, you are bleeding steadily or your contractions are five minutes apart for the period of an hour, advises the Cleveland Clinic. However, not everyone experiences a textbook birth. Your contractions may be five minutes apart for 10 minutes when you feel the urge to push. Or you may be in labor for hours without much progress. Listening to your body is the best way to know when you need to go to the hospital. “Go to the hospital when you instinctively feel the need to go,” says Menelli. “That is the best compass.”

Even if you plan on birthing at home, still monitor your body’s signals. Listening to what your body is telling you as it prepares to deliver your baby into the world can help you instinctively know what position to assume and when to push.

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