How to Recognize True Labor

By Sharon Perkins
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It's not always easy to recognize when you're really in labor, even if you've given birth before. By the end of 9 months, you might be so eager for pregnancy to end that you're willing to imagine the start of labor in nearly any symptom. Even the experts can be fooled when trying to determine if you're really in labor, since there's only one way to really tell: when you're in true labor, your cervix will dilate to let the baby out.

Step 1

Time your contractions. While there's no magic number of minutes between contractions or duration of contractions that definitely says you're in labor, true labor contractions generally get closer together and somewhat longer as labor progresses. Despite what some people will tell you, your contractions don't have to be 5 minutes apart before you have your baby, but do usually occur every 4 to 6 minutes and last up to 60 seconds, according to Women's Healthcare Topics. You may feel true labor contractions in your back rather than in front. If you're having regular contractions that are getting stronger, call your doctor.

Step 2

Watch for a fluid gush, although your water doesn't always break when you go into labor -- some babies are born with the amniotic sac still intact, but most doctors today will artificially rupture the membranes if they don't break on their own. If your water does break while you're having contractions, you're probably in true labor or will be shortly. Whenever you think your water breaks, even if you haven't felt a single labor pain, call your doctor immediately. The risk of developing an infection increases when the barrier between the outside world and your baby is broken, Penn Medicine warns.

Step 3

Check for bloody mucus. As your cervix dilates, the mucus plug that served as a barrier between uterus and vagina comes loose. As the cervix dilates, small tears cause a small amount of bleeding, which mixes with the mucus. You can lose your mucus plug days or even a few weeks before labor starts, so passing the plug doesn't mean you're in labor if you're not having contractions. But an increasing amount of mucus mixed with a small amount of blood along with contractions probably means baby's on the way. Report heavy bleeding to your doctor immediately.

Step 4

Walk around and see if your contractions decrease. True labor won't stop if you walk around; false labor often does. If you can walk or talk through contractions, you may not be in real labor yet. Most women have to stop walking or talking during contraction when they're in true labor.

About the Author

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.