Labor is the term used to describe the process that occurs as the body prepares to expel the baby and the placenta. Labor is defined as regular contractions strong enough to change the dilation of the cervix. There are some signs that labor is about to start, although not every woman notices these changes.
Lightening describes the process of the baby’s head settling or “dropping” into the pelvis. This is often the first sign labor is approaching in the weeks or hours ahead. Another signal that labor is about to begin is “show,” an increase in vaginal discharge. Some women notice a thick mucus plug that is passed as the cervix begins to dilate, while others may simply notice an increase in vaginal discharge. It is normal for the discharge to appear pink or even slightly bloody.
During labor, the cervix dilates, or opens, to allow the baby to pass through. The uterus contracts (or hardens) at regular intervals and contractions become stronger and more frequent as labor progresses. Labor contractions are typically 30 to 70 seconds in duration.
Between contractions, the abdomen is relaxed and soft. It is common for contractions to start in the back and gradually move to the abdomen, but every labor is different, even for women who have previously given birth.
It is not unusual for women to experience “false” labor pains. These pains are known as Braxton Hicks contractions and can occur as early as the second trimester of pregnancy. It can be difficult to distinguish between false labor and actual labor pains, but there are some clear differences.
Unlike true labor, Braxton Hicks contractions do not change the dilation of your cervix and are often irregular and don’t progress the same as actual labor contractions. False labor pains may also stop when you walk or move around, and they are usually only felt in the front.
To determine whether or not you are in true labor, time the contractions for about an hour. If the contractions are irregular and don’t grow closer together over time, it is unlikely you are experiencing true labor.
If you believe you are in true labor, monitor contractions by recording the time each one starts and stops as well as the interval between contractions. Regular contractions occurring every 3 to 5 minutes lasting for at least an hour without subsiding indicate it is a reasonable time to go to the hospital and be evaluated for labor.