5 Signs and Symptoms of Labor

Updated: April 27, 2022
What are the common physical and emotion signs of labor? And how do you know if your labor really has started...?
Table of contents

In this article, you will find:

How your body prepares and tricky false labor

When your due date is near and you prepare for labor, there are going to be several signs and symptoms that it's almost showtime. As you go into labor you'll experience symptoms that may include emotional changes, pains that feel like menstrual cramps, back pain similar to sciatica, Braxton Hicks contractions, the "bloody show," and the breaking of your water before labor begins. Learn what else you should expect before birth.

How Your Body Prepares for Labor

As labor approaches, your body starts to prepare itself. After all, giving birth is a lot of work and you need to be as ready as possible. There are several early signs of labor that will be noticeable long before active labor begins. Not every woman experiences labor in the same way and certain signs can occur either before labor starts or during active labor.

The following article and video will take you through these signs and symptoms of labor.

1. Physical Symptoms

Toward the end of your pregnancy, you may experience a sensation of building pressure or cramping in your pelvic or rectal area. This pelvic cramping can feel very similar to monthly menstrual cramps. During the third trimester, lower back pain that comes and goes is common too. Some women also experience shooting pain in the lower back and legs or sciatica.

“Lightening” is also among the common signs of labor. Lightening happens when the baby's head drops into the pelvis. While women may be able to breathe a little easier, they may have to go to the bathroom even more because the baby is pressing on the bladder. This typically happens a couple of weeks before birth for women having their first baby.

You may also notice an increase in heartburn (acid reflux) and gassiness. Many women wonder if heartburn is a sign of labor. When the baby pushes the stomach upward, acids that are in the stomach move up into the windpipe, creating feelings of heartburn. Once the baby drops in the pelvis, this can improve. Unless you have a high-risk pregnancy, there is no need to go to the hospital or call your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms in the later stages of your pregnancy. But, if you want to call your Ob-Gyn for peace of mind, that's always a good idea so that you're not putting added stress on your body.

2. Changing Emotional State

This is a time of waiting and many women busy themselves with household tasks. This is referred to as a "nesting instinct" as a woman prepares for her baby. The anticipation of what will happen during labor can lead to a mixture of emotions, from fear and anxiety to excitement and impatience. You may have a sudden burst of energy one minute and feel like crying the next. It's all completely normal whether you're expecting your first baby or whether you've done this a few times. Some pregnant women start feeling very emotional during their third trimester.

Women may be scared about the stages of labor and how much pain they're going to feel once active labor kicks in. While nothing can prepare you fully for how you will feel in labor, the more you understand about pain relief options beforehand, the more confident you will feel about your ability to manage. It's also thought that by being informed and prepared, you are likely to reduce your anxiety during labor, which in itself can enable you to cope better with true labor contractions.

3. Recognizing Contractions

One of the most common symptoms of approaching labor is an increase in the strength and frequency of Braxton Hicks', or practice, contractions (see false labor), which may be occurring up to four times an hour. The purpose of these false labor contractions is to prepare your uterus to deal with real labor contractions so that labor progresses smoothly. Some women find Braxton Hicks' relatively painless, while others find these false labor contractions fairly uncomfortable, especially if the baby is quite low and contractions cause increased pelvic pressure.

Apart from the level of pain, one of the main ways to distinguish Braxton Hicks' from regular contractions is that Bracton Hicks' are irregular and they fade away. When a woman is experiencing true labor contractions, labor pains occur at regular intervals and gradually become stronger, more intense, and closer together.

The other main difference between Braxton Hicks' contractions and regular contractions is that, unlike Braxton Hicks', real contractions cause your cervix to dilate, which indicates that active labor is beginning. There's no false alarm when that happens!

4. The Bloody Show

When you hear people talk about “the bloody show,” they are referring to the vaginal discharge that can appear towards the end of a woman's pregnancy. It's a sign that your mucus plug has loosened or that you've already lost part of it.

When you're pregnant, the mucus plug covers the cervix and helps to protect the baby. This prevents any bacteria from getting through. As you prepare for the stages of labor, your cervix starts to dilate. When the cervix opens, the mucus plug is released. Some women lose it entirely, while others lose it in small amounts. Vaginial discharge can also ramp up at the end of pregnancy in the third trimester which may also be associated with the mucus plug.

5. Water Breaking

We've all seen it in the movies and on TV. A woman's water breaks and she goes into labor. When you're pregnant, your baby is surrounded by the amniotic sac which is filled with fluid. During the beginning stages of labor, the sac will rupture which is known as your water breaking.

According to the Mayo Clinic, when your water breaks, you may feel wetness in your vagina, or constant leaking of fluid. Some women experience a gush of clear or light yellow fluid. What the case, these are all signs that labor is coming and that your water is breaking.

What Triggers Labor?

No one is sure exactly what triggers labor, but it seems the process varies with each species, and humans are no different.

In sheep, a drop in progesterone signals the start of labor. In mice, babies release proteins to signal their maturity, which in turn triggers labor. In humans, little is known about the signals that start labor although there are many theories. Studies suggest that the production of hormones such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) by the uterus and placenta may play a role. It's also thought that an increase in pro-inflammatory substances known as cytokines may be involved. Whatever the case, it's likely that the onset of labor involves a biological communication between your baby and your body to indicate that your baby is ready to meet you.

As you approach labor, you will experience irregular contractions; these will increase in strength and regularity as labor progresses.

As you approach labor, you will experience irregular contractions; these will increase in strength and regularity as labor progresses.