What are the early signs and symptoms of labor?
Lower back pain may be an early sign of labor.
While there are characteristic changes in the body with impending labor, every woman's experience is unique and different. "Normal" can vary from woman to woman. The signs and symptoms of normal labor can begin three weeks prior to the anticipated due date up until two weeks afterward, and there is no precise way to predict exactly when a woman will go into labor. This article describes the 10 most common signs and symptoms that labor is approaching.
1. The baby drops
Medically known as "lightening," this is when the baby "drops." The baby's head descends deeper into the pelvis. For some women, this occurs up to 2 weeks prior to the beginning of labor; other women may not notice this event at all.
2. An increased urge to urinate
An increased urge to urinate can be a result of the baby's head dropping into the pelvis. The low position of the baby's head puts even more pressure on the urinary bladder, so many women approaching labor might feel a frequent need to urinate. As the baby drops, breathing can become easier since there is less pressure on the diaphragm from underneath.
3. The mucus plug passes
Passage of the mucus plug is a known sign that labor is near. Thick mucus produced by the cervical glands normally keeps the cervical opening closed during pregnancy. This mucus plug must be expelled before delivery. Pressure from the baby's head causes the mucus plug to be expressed from the vagina, sometimes as blood-tinged vaginal discharge (referred to as "bloody show"). For some women, the mucus plug is not expelled until after labor begins; others may notice the mucus discharge in the days prior to the onset of labor.
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4. The cervix dilates
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Dilation of the cervix is a sign that labor is approaching, although this is detected by the health-care professional during a pelvic examination. This begins in the days and even weeks prior to the onset of labor; "Fully dilated" means the cervix has dilated to a width of 10 cm.
5. Thinning of the cervix
In addition to dilation, thinning (effacement) of the cervix also occurs. This occurs in the weeks prior to labor, since a thinned cervix dilates more easily. This sign is also detected by the health-care professional during a pelvic exam.
6. Back pain
Many women note they experience back pain, especially dull pain in the lower back that comes and goes, as labor approaches. Back pain may accompany contractions felt in other locations or may occur on its own. Women also notice loosening of the joints, particularly in the pelvic area, as the third trimester progresses, in preparation for delivery.
Contractions, which can vary among women and can be described as pounding, tightening, stabbing, or similar to menstrual cramps, increase in strength and frequency as labor approaches.
Irregular contractions, known as Braxton-Hicks contractions or "false labor," occur toward the end of pregnancy during the third trimester. Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually milder than those of true labor, and they do not occur at regular intervals. When contractions begin to occur less than ten minutes apart, this frequently signals the onset of true labor.
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8. A burst of energy
In contrast to feeling extra tired as is typical of pregnancy, many women describe feeling a sudden burst of energy and excitement in the weeks prior to labor. Often referred to as "nesting," this impulse often is accompanied by a sense of urgency to get things done or make plans for the baby.
9. Feeling the urge to have a bowel movement (diarrhea)
Women often describe the pelvic pain and pressure as feeling the urge to have a bowel movement. Some women also report experiencing diarrhea or loose bowel movements in the days preceding labor.
10. Your water breaks
Rupture of the amniotic membranes, or one's "water breaking," usually is a sign that labor has begun. Despite how it is often portrayed in movies, it is typically not a dramatic gush of fluid, but rather a slower dripping or trickle. Amniotic fluid should be colorless and odorless. It can sometimes be hard to distinguish from urine, but amniotic fluid does not have an odor. If you are leaking amniotic fluid, it is essential to contact your health-care professional right away.
Medically Reviewed on 8/20/2020
Milton, SH, MD. et al. "Normal Labor and Delivery." Medscape. Upated: May 02, 2014