Am I in Labor?

Medically Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD on September 10, 2022

In movies and TV, the start of labor can be dramatic. Water breaks with a big gush, and a baby is on the way. But in real life, you might not always have such obvious signs that you're about to be a new mom.

Women feel labor coming in different ways. For some, it's slow with lots of signals. For others, it comes in a rush with very little warning. Your doctor or midwife will talk to you about what to expect.

Here are some things to look for.

Are You Having Contractions?

Your uterus tightens and relaxes as it gets ready to push out your baby. That causes pain that at first feels like cramps during your period. The pain gets stronger as delivery gets closer. If your contractions get stronger, more regular, and come closer together, you are most likely in labor.

If your contractions aren't regular and go away when you change positions, you might be having Braxton Hicks contractions. These aren't labor pains. It's kind of like your body practicing for the real thing.

True contractions keep coming no matter what you do and steadily get stronger and closer together. They last about 30 to 70 seconds.

Does Your Back Hurt?

It's common to have back pain during pregnancy. It could be due to the extra strain on your back and belly muscles or just changes in posture. Heat or cold packs or massage often help.

During labor, you may have lower back pain and cramps that don't get better or go away. It can also be part of your contractions. The pain usually starts in your back and then moves around to the front of your body.

Did Your Water Break?

Your baby is growing in a bag of protective fluid called the amniotic sac. This bag breaks when it's time for your baby to be born. This can be a gush of fluid down your legs or just a slow, little trickle.

If you notice that your water broke, head to the hospital or birthing center. There's a good chance you will go into labor not long after it happens.

But you can still be in labor even if your water hasn't broken. Sometimes your doctor will have to break it for you using a little plastic hook. This helps speed up or induce your labor.

Did You Have Any Jelly-Like Discharge?

When you're pregnant, a plug of mucus blocks your cervix. As your cervix gets softer and bigger to prepare for labor, this plug loosens and drops out. It's usually a small amount of pinkish or brown-colored jelly-like discharge. It may come away in one piece or several little blobs. This can also happen long before active labor starts. By itself, it isn't a reason to call.

Are You ‘Dilated’ and ‘Effaced’?

To stretch enough to make room for your baby, your cervix has to thin out and get bigger (open up). When you hear your doctor talk about how far your cervix is "effaced" (thinned) and "dilated" (opened), that's what they mean. Your cervix has to be dilated at least 10 centimeters before you can start pushing to deliver your baby.

Show Sources


The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "How to Tell When Labor Begins" and "Easing Back Pain During Pregnancy."

Medscape: "Cervical Ripening," "Amniotomy."

Medscape Multispecialty: "Am I in Labor?"

NHS: "Signs that labour has begun."

Women & Infants Hospital: "Signs of Labor - Pregnancy Planner." "Labor and birth."

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