It is not always easy to detect when labor is starting—even for moms who have had babies before. This is because many of the early signs of labor are misinterpreted. Whether you are expecting a baby or you are studying to become a doula, you’ll need and want to know what to look for when going into labor. So, before you grab your birthing bag and call your doula, here a few signs to look for that will indicate that you are truly going into labor.
Your Water Breaks
This is probably the most obvious sign of labor. Most women report experiencing regular contractions before their water broke. When your water breaks, chances are you won’t experience a big gush of water, generally it is going to be a small leak as your baby’s head acts like a cork and prevents too much liquid from leaking out.
Once your water breaks, in most cases it means that labor is fast approaching. On average, 80% of women whose water breaks go into labor within the next 12 hours, and those who don’t are generally induced due to the heightened risk of infection after the amniotic sac has ruptured.
Strong, Regular Contractions
Contractions are another sure sign that labor is approaching, but many women mistake Braxton Hicks (practice contractions) as being the real thing. The best way to determine between real contractions and practice contractions, is to remember that practice contractions rarely get strong or regular and generally go away. Because practice contractions can be brought on by hunger or dehydration, eating or drinking can sometimes put them to rest.
On the other hand, real contractions only get stronger and more regular leading up to delivery. For most, real contractions start as a cramping feeling that progresses into a discernible contraction as they intensify. They can start out ten minutes apart, becoming more frequent as they slowly progress to eight, five and eventually three minutes apart.
Nature’s way of protecting your baby from infection is for the cervix to remain closed and plugged with mucus throughout your pregnancy. As the time for your baby to arrive draws near and you progress toward labor, the cervix will begin to open (dilate) and soften in preparation for delivery. When this happens, the mucus that has accumulated there during the course of your pregnancy will dislodge, which can measure up to a teaspoon of mucus. When it is dispelled it generally presents itself as either a blob which is also known as the mucus plug or a runny smear. In some instances, blood vessels can be torn as the cervix begins to open. When this happens, the discharge will become tinted with blood (bloody show). This indicates that the cervix is changing, but labor can still be hours, days or potentially weeks away.
During the first stage of labor, the body produces a group of hormones known as prostaglandins. The body uses these to cause the uterus to contract and soften, and dilate the cervix. At the same time, prostaglandins can overstimulate the bowels in some women, causing frequent stools or diarrhea.
Intense Back Pain
Most women experience back pain throughout their pregnancy. It is when the back pain intensifies that you may be experiencing “back labor.” Back labor is common, with nearly 1/3 of all pregnant women experiencing it. Back labor occurs when the baby descends with either its face or skull pressing on the mother’s spine. When this happens, the mother will experience constant pain that is concentrated in the back but may radiate to the abdomen. Whether it is true back labor or not, extreme back pains are a sure sign that your body is getting ready to deliver your baby.
To become a doula, training includes learning signs of labor and how to talk to expectant mothers about what they are experiencing. Before you rush to a hospital or birthing center, talk to your doula about what you’re feeling and they will be able to help you determine if it is almost time to deliver your baby.