8 Signs of Labor

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

After 9 months of pregnancy, many women are on high alert for any signs of labor. Since expectant mothers are so hypersensitive to any changes in their body during pregnancy, it is particularly important to be able to recognize and understand the signs of labor.

Signs of Labor

Ideally, all women would be able to complete their full term of pregnancy and go through a normal labor situation, but many women also experience preterm or early labor, which has different signs and symptoms.

Early Labor

Going into early labor is not ideal in most cases unless a medical emergency requires it, but you should be aware of the symptoms that may indicate you are going into preterm labor, such as vaginal bleeding, changes in vaginal discharge, lower back pain and pressure in the pelvic area. Any labor that occurs before 37 weeks is considered an early labor.

A pregnant woman grimacing and clutching her stomach

Call your doctor immediately if you feel any twinges of pain. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Vaginal Bleeding: If you notice any spotting or vaginal bleeding before the end of your term, you should bring it to your doctor or midwife’s attention. While a small amount may be normal, and may not necessarily mean you are going into labor, there is also a good chance that it could indicate preterm labor. [1]

Vaginal Discharge: If there is a noticeable change in the quality of your vaginal discharge, going from clear and milky to thick or more mucus-filled, it could be a sign that you are starting labor. It is particularly important if the discharge is tinted pink or has some blood within it. [2]

Back Pain: Back pain can indicate the onset of contractions, but may also represent the body adjusting when the baby normally drops lower in the pelvis near the end of your pregnancy. While this isn’t a definitive sign of preterm labor, it is still something to note, particularly if the pain is severe, long-lasting, or gets progressively worse. [3]

Pelvic Pressure: In some cases of preterm labor, there will be additional pressure experienced in the pelvis, as though you need to go to the bathroom very badly, but are unable to. This may be one of the earliest signs of preterm labor, and if the pressure doesn’t ease, as it would if it were caused by gas, you should speak with your doctor or midwife as soon as possible. [4]

Normal Labor

If your pregnancy moves past the 37th week, then you will technically experience normal labor. While pinpointing the exact date of delivery is difficult, delivering between Week 37 and Week 42 is considered normal. Some of the most common signs of labor include diarrhea, nausea, mucus discharge, disrupted sleep, mood swings, broken waters, contractions and shivering, among others. [5]

Diarrhea: Near the end of your pregnancy, when your hormones once again begin to flow in preparation for delivery, it can cause an onset of diarrhea. This is caused by the increase in prostaglandin, which can relax the bowels in order to flush the system. Having excess waste in the body will make it more difficult (and potentially dangerous) to deliver the baby, so the body does its best to clean out the system. Diarrhea may happen up to a week before labor, or it can be an immediate precursor to contractions and delivery – even happening during delivery, in some cases. [6]

Contractions: The most well-known sign of labor, contractions first appear as occasional backaches, separated by anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. The contractions will gradually become more frequent, regular and severe until delivery can occur. [7]

Mucus Discharge: In pregnancy circles, an event called a “bloody show” often precedes the beginning of normal labor. This is when the mucus plug, which had previously been blocking the entrance to the cervix, detaches to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. This mucus plug can be the size of a silver dollar and has a sticky, gelatinous consistency. It can be white, yellowish or even tinged pink, and may be accompanied by blood when it discharges from the vagina. This is usually a good indication that birth and labor will begin within a few days. [8]

Mood Swings: Hormonal fluctuation is a part of pregnancy from start to finish, but in the final few days before going into labor, the intensity of the mood swings can reach a peak. After nine months of carrying your child, the wait is finally ending, and this can often lead to some unpredictable moods, in anticipation of delivery. [9]

Broken Water: One of the clearest indicators of labor is when a woman’s water breaks. More specifically, this is when the amniotic sac breaks, spilling out the liquid and water that had previously been surrounding the baby. This amniotic fluid could be anything from a leak to a sudden gush; either way, you should inform your midwife or doctor immediately and prepare for labor, as it is likely to begin very soon. [10] [11]

Disrupted Sleep: Sleeping during pregnancy can be difficult for many women, but as you near your due date, you are far more likely to be unable to sleep. This is because your body is preparing for delivery, your baby is more active and your stress levels are higher. [12]

Nausea: If you have the sensation of nausea in your third trimester, it shouldn’t be blamed on morning sickness. There is often the sensation of nausea when the final flood of prostaglandin hits your system, indicating that labor is imminent.

Shivering: Some women report unexplained shivering before they go into labor, even if they are feeling quite warm. What many people don’t understand about shivering is that it is a way for the body not only to warm up but also relieve nervous tension. The anxiety of approaching your due date may cause this involuntary release by the body and may be experienced quite a bit in the days leading up to delivery. [13]

Word of Caution: It is always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to signs of labor. If it is earlier than the 37th week and you believe that labor is beginning, call your doctor immediately. That being said, anytime something doesn’t feel right about your pregnancy, trust your intuition and consult your doctor immediately. There are many different signs of labor, some of which can be mistaken for other normal symptoms of pregnancy.

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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