False Alarm? How To Know When You’re In Labor

Birth Doula, Melissa Boudiette discusses five early signs and symptoms of labor to look out for


In an ideal world, all the events leading up to the birth of your baby would just seamlessly fall into place – you’d pee on a stick and it would tell you you’re pregnant. You’d get an ultrasound and see the sex of your child and then eventually, you’d hear your internal alarm go off saying, “You’re in labor! Go to the hospital!”

Unfortunately, in this age of multiple devices that discern whether or not your baby is sleeping, breathing, or gaining enough weight, we still don’t have one that magically tells you whether or not you’re in labor. The good news is that your miraculous body has its own monitors and alarms in place. You just need to know the signs.

Reviewing the stages of labor

The term “false labor” is misleading because there’s nothing true or false about bodily sensations. Everything has purpose, whether it’s to alert you to coming changes, how to move for comfort or to progress your labor, or even to let you know that something might be wrong. As with most other processes, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end to childbirth:


  1. First stage: The “beginning” of labor includes everything that occurs in your body from the time the cervix begins to soften and dilate and contractions begin up until you begin pushing your baby out. The three phases of the first stage are:
    1. Early labor – 0-5cm dilation
    2. Active labor – 6-7cm dilation
    3. Transition – 8-10cm dilation
  2. Second stage: The “middle” of labor is the delivery or birth of your baby, including pushing your baby through the birth canal and ultimately the vaginal opening.
  3. Third stage: The “end” of labor occurs after the baby is born and when your body releases the placenta, which signals to the body the pregnancy is complete and the uterus can return to its normal size.


Early signs of labor

Any time between 37–42 weeks of pregnancy, you may notice that your body feels different. Some early signs that childbirth may be approaching include:

  1. Lightening: Often referred to as the baby “dropping,” indicating the baby is settling deeper, preparing to engage the pelvis. You may notice your belly seems further away from your sight, or you can breathe easier and eat more food before feeling full. This may happen days or weeks before going into labor.
  2. Diarrhea: Prostaglandin is a hormone released in late pregnancy that softens the cervix to open, and can also stimulate the bowels like a laxative. This may happen hours or days before going into labor.
  3. Release of mucus plug or bloody show: The mucus plug is a watery, jelly-like glob of mucus sealing the cervix, preventing infection. It’s often grayish and bloody in color, and may be one large clump or little strings of bloody mucus increasing each time you use the restroom. This may happen hours or days before going into labor.
  4. Increasing “Braxton Hicks” contractions: Braxton Hicks contractions refer to contractions that are inconsistent or don’t produce cervical change. They still serve a purpose, toning and preparing the uterus for labor. Some women notice them weeks before childbirth, and some don’t notice them until early labor.
  5. Spontaneous rupture of membranes, i.e., water breaking: This is when the pressure of contractions causes a tear the thin amniotic sac or fluid filled membrane surrounding your baby. This can be a small continuous leak, trickle or large gush. This only happens prior to labor about 15% of the time, and can occur any time during the childbirth process. In fact, in some cases, the baby is birthed inside the amniotic sac with the waters still intact!


What contractions feel like

Every woman’s body is different and therefore every woman will experience contractions a little differently. Contractions may feel like:

  • Mild to intense menstrual cramping
  • Lower backache
  • Tightening and hardening of the uterus/stomach
  • Prickling, tightening, stretching sensations in the vagina
  • Widening, stretching of the pelvic bones and hip joints


How to know when you’re in labor

Timing contractions helps you discern whether or not you’re in “true labor,” or active labor, which means contractions are strong, long, and close enough together to actively produce change in the cervix that can be measured every couple of hours or so.

While there are plenty of applications to help time contractions, it’s important to know they’re timed from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next. So, if a contraction begins at 2:00, lasts until 2:01, and another one begins at 2:05, then the contractions are 4 minutes apart, lasting one minute each. When your contractions reach this pattern consistently for about an hour, that’s a good sign you’re nearing active labor. We call this the 4-1-1. When contractions are 4 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute, for 1 hour or more, that’s a good time to think about calling your midwife/doctor and doula, and transitioning to your birthing location or settling in for your home birth!