How Do I Know if I’m in Labor?

Labor in pregnancy

As a pregnant woman approaches the final weeks of labor, her anxiety often grows. Many women wonder if they will recognize the symptoms of labor and make it to the hospital on time. In movies and on TV, women have one contraction and give birth minutes later, however in reality, it is usually slower and less dramatic.

Increase in Vaginal Discharge

As the cervix begins to soften and open before labor, many women notice an increase in vaginal discharge. This discharge can be cloudy mucous, pink, brown, or even slightly bloody. This is normal and can be a sign that labor will begin soon, however many women pass their mucous plug weeks before their labor begins. If any bleeding occurs that is more than spotting, call your provider immediately.


Contractions are one of the most obvious and yet often confusing signs of labor. Many women feel painless tightening of their abdomen off and on weeks before their due date. These are known as Braxton-Hicks contractions and are usually nothing to worry about. Real contractions feel different for every woman, but will usually cause discomfort in the lower abdomen or a dull backache. Often women will feel pelvic pressure with contractions. Some women describe contractions as strong menstrual cramps that move in a wave-like pattern from the top to the bottom of the uterus. True labor contractions do not stop when you change your position, however you may be comfortable and relaxed between contractions.

True labor contractions will last about 30-70 seconds long and form a pattern. They usually become longer, stronger, and closer together over time. It is difficult to talk during a labor contraction. When they are five minutes apart or less for an hour or two, it is usually a sign to call your midwife or obstetrician or head to the hospital.

Rupture of Membranes

When your water breaks, it can feel like a big gush of fluid from your vagina or a slow slight trickle. Either way, if you suspect your water has broken, you should contact your provider or go to the hospital.  It is important to note what time the leaking started and the color of the fluid. Keep in mind that your water can break before you have any contractions, and it is still important to inform your provider if this happens.

When in doubt, it is always best to call your obstetrician or your midwife. There is no harm in coming to the hospital for a false alarm. Most important, call your provider for any of the following:

  • You are leaking fluid from your vagina
  • Vaginal bleeding more than spotting
  • Baby is moving less than normal, after you have tried eating and drinking
  • Contractions that are difficult to talk through, coming every five minutes or closer for over an hour

Robyn Carlisle, CNM, MSM is a certified Nurse Midwife practicing in Washington Township, New Jersey.