How Do I Know if I’m in Labor?

by | Sep 29, 2023 | Birth Parent Blog

pregnant woman touching her belly while looking at window As you prepare for delivery, it’s important to start thinking about your labor experience. Many women have wondered, “How do I know if I’m in labor or not?” Understanding what true labor is, knowing what to expect, and learning what to do when labor begins can help you feel ready when your due date arrives.
Labor is the dilation (stretching and expanding) of the cervix. A woman’s uterus tightens as her body prepares for labor, and the cervix stretches. Before going into labor, you may feel tightening, contractions, or cramps, but it’s not technically labor until there is a change in the cervix. If you’re experiencing any signs of labor we share below, contact your OB-GYN.

How to Know if You’re Really in Labor

Even women with other children can’t always determine when labor is starting. Many early signs of labor are uncertain and easy to mistake for something else.
Before you pack up for the hospital, check to see if you have these common signs that you are in labor:

1. Strong, Regular Contractions

A contraction happens when the uterine muscles tighten up like a fist and then relax. They help push your baby out. Contractions are one of the most obvious signs of labor, but many women mix them up with Braxton Hicks contractions.
How can you tell if they’re true contractions or not? Track your contractions to determine if they get stronger and come at regular intervals. When you’re in actual labor, your contractions will last about 30 to 70 seconds and arrive approximately 5 to 10 minutes apart. True contractions are so strong that you can’t walk or talk during them. In addition, they get stronger and closer together over time.
When you drink water or eat something, does it make your contractions go away? If it does, those are probably just Braxton Hicks contractions. Real contractions won’t back off until delivery.

2. Your Water Breaks

Your baby has been growing in amniotic fluid (the bag of waters) in your uterus. Once your water has broken, it means labor is coming. Some women experience their water breaking dramatically, like a big rush of water. Or, you may feel just a trickle.

3. Increase in Discharge

When you’re pregnant, your cervix is closed and plugged up with mucus. Once you get further in your pregnancy, your cervix softens to prepare for delivery.
You’ll notice an increase in discharge that’s clear, pink, or slightly bloody (brownish or reddish). This discharge is called a bloody show and can happen a few days before or at the beginning of labor. Tell your medical provider immediately if you experience heavy or bright red bleeding.

4. Pain in your lower back and belly

If you start to feel severe back pain, it could be a sign that your body is getting ready to deliver. This pain doesn’t go away when you move or change positions.
When in doubt, be sure to get in touch with your medical professional. The information on this blog is not meant to replace your doctor or serve as medical advice.
Beautiful pregnant woman sitting cross-legged and cradling her belly

Braxton-Hicks or the Real Deal?

Braxton-Hicks contractions are typically irregular contractions that often occur during the third trimester of pregnancy. Even though they can be painful, they’re not as strong as true labor contractions.
In most cases, Braxton-Hicks contractions are irregular and short (less than 45 seconds). You may feel the discomfort of the contraction in different parts of your body, such as your lower abdomen, groin, or back.
When you’re in true labor, your contractions will cause pain at the top of the uterus, radiating over the entire uterus, through the lower back, and into the pelvis.
There are several ways to tell the difference between true and false labor. Be sure to talk to your doctor or midwife about the difference between the two.

Labor and Adoption

If you’re placing your baby for adoption, you may be unsure how your labor and delivery process will happen at the hospital. Once your labor begins, let your Adoption Coordinator at Lifetime know by calling or texting 1-800-923-6784. Letting her know when you arrive at the hospital is also helpful. Your Adoption Coordinator will communicate with the hospital staff to ensure they have your adoption hospital plan.
Making a hospital plan that you’re comfortable with helps make your time in the hospital as low-stress as possible. This plan includes how you want the delivery to take place and what role, if any, you want the adoptive parents to have. Your Adoption Coordinator will let you know what to expect at the hospital when you’re planning to place your baby with the adoptive family you chose.
Depending on your relationship with the adoptive family, you can let them know, too. That way, they can plan to get to the hospital if you want them there. If you feel more comfortable letting your Adoption Coordinator notify the adoptive parents, that’s fine.

Packing Your Hospital Bag

As you get nearer to your due date, it’s good to have a bag packed and ready to grab as you rush to the hospital. One of the ways that Lifetime Adoption helps women facing an unplanned pregnancy is by providing packed hospital bags, which we call “labor bags.” Our labor bags arrive packed with necessities like shampoo, conditioner, socks, pads, deodorant, mouthwash, lip balm, and washcloths.
Most pregnancy experts suggest having your labor bag ready a month or two before your due date. For tips on other essentials to bring, check out Lifetime’s handy packing list for the hospital.
To get your free hospital bag packed with the essentials, visit and complete the request form.

Lifetime Adoption

Labor is physically and emotionally difficult, and adoption is, too. For this reason, each state has a required waiting period after your baby’s birth before you can sign any adoption paperwork.
This waiting period provides time between your baby’s birth and finalizing your adoption decision. You can rest, recover, reflect, and give time for any medications from labor to clear your system. Then, you’ll have a clear head to be confident about your choice.
Your Adoption Coordinator will be by your side to help you work through the complex emotions you may face. And just like every part of your adoption plan, you’re in control of the details in your hospital plan.
To learn more about labor and giving birth when you’re placing your baby for adoption, call or text Lifetime Adoption at 1-800-923-6784 for free information.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 15, 2016, and has since been updated. 

Heather Featherston

Written by Heather Featherston

As Vice President of Lifetime Adoption, Heather Featherston holds an MBA and is passionate about working with those facing adoption, pregnancy, and parenting issues. Heather has conducted training for birth parent advocates, spoken to professional groups, and has appeared on television and radio to discuss the multiple aspects of adoption. She has provided one-on-one support to women and hopeful adoptive parents working through adoption decisions.

Since 2002, she has been helping pregnant women and others in crisis to learn more about adoption. Heather also trains and speaks nationwide to pregnancy clinics to effectively meet the needs of women who want to explore adoption for their child. Today, she continues to address the concerns women have about adoption and supports the needs of women who choose adoption for their child.

As a published author of the book Called to Adoption, Featherston loves to see God’s hand at work every day as she helps children and families come together through adoption.

Read more about Heather Featherston

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