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Pregnancy and Signs of Labor

If you are pregnant, one of your first concerns might be what labor and delivery are like.

This information will help answer the most common questions about labor, especially if this is your first pregnancy. For detailed information on delivery, see Methods of Delivery.

 

Signs of Labor

Some women experience very distinct signs of labor, while others do not. No one knows what causes labor to start or when it will start, but several hormonal and physical changes may indicate the beginning of labor:

  • Lightening
  • Passing of the mucus plug
  • Contractions
  • Water breaking
  • Effacement and dilation of the cervix

 

Lightening During Labor

The process of your baby settling or lowering into your pelvis just before labor is called lightening. Lightening can occur a few weeks or a few hours before labor. Because the uterus rests on the bladder more after lightening, you may feel the need to urinate more frequently.

Passing of the Mucus Plug

The mucus plug accumulates at the cervix during pregnancy. When the cervix begins to open wider, the mucus is discharged into the vagina and may be clear, pink, or slightly bloody. Labor may begin soon after the mucus plug is discharged or one to two weeks later.

Labor Contractions

During contractions, the abdomen becomes hard. Between contractions, the uterus relaxes and the abdomen becomes soft. The way a contraction feels is different for each woman, and may feel different from one pregnancy to the next. But labor contractions usually cause discomfort or a dull ache in your back and lower abdomen, along with pressure in the pelvis. Contractions move in a wave-like motion from the top of the uterus to the bottom. Some women describe contractions as strong menstrual cramps. Unlike false labor contractions or Braxton Hicks contractions, true labor contractions do not stop when you change your position or relax. Although the contractions may be uncomfortable, you will be able to relax in between contractions.

What's the Difference Between True Labor and False Labor?

Before "true" labor begins, you may have "false" labor pains, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions. These irregular uterine contractions are perfectly normal and may start to occur in your second trimester, although more commonly in your third trimester of pregnancy. They are your body's way of getting ready for the "real thing."

What Do Braxton Hicks Contractions Feel Like?

Braxton Hicks contractions can be described as a tightening in the abdomen that comes and goes. These contractions do not get closer together, do not increase with walking, do not increase in duration, and do not feel stronger over time as they do when you are in true labor.

How Do I Know When I Am in True Labor?

To figure out if the contractions you are feeling are the real thing, ask yourself the following questions.

Contraction CharacteristicsFalse LaborTrue Labor
How often do the contractions occur?Contractions are often irregular and do not get closer together.Contractions come at regular intervals and last about 30-70 seconds. As time progresses, they get closer together.
Do they change with movement?Contractions may stop when you walk or rest, or may even stop if you change positions.Contractions continue despite movement or changing positions.
How strong are they?Contractions are usually weak and do not get much stronger. Or they may be strong at first and then get weaker.Contractions steadily increase in strength.
Where do you feel the pain?Contractions are usually only felt in the front of the abdomen or pelvic region.Contractions usually start in the lower back and move to the front of the abdomen.

WebMD Medical Reference

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