Am I In Labor? How to Tell.
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
That first contraction a mama feels is so exhilarating (and also a little nerve-wracking, if I’m honest). I still remember the first time I felt a Braxton Hicks contraction. It was such a strange sensation - an uncontrollable tightening of my uterus and a slight pressure downward. I was about 34 weeks pregnant with my first and was unsure - uhhh is this the real deal? If so, it’s way too soon! Luckily it was good ‘ol Braxton Hicks visiting my doorstep and not the real deal. But I remember wondering...what DOES the real deal feel like? Read on if you’re curious about the answer.
PRACTICE LABOR (& Braxton Hicks Contractions)
First off, let's talk about Braxton Hicks contractions. I like to call them “practice contractions” because that’s kind of what they are. They are known to tone the uterus, and while they don’t actively lead to cervical dilation, it is thought that they soften the cervix.
Braxton Hicks are thought to actually begin as early as six weeks gestation, but most mamas won’t notice them until the second or third trimester. Most women say they feel like mild menstrual cramps and/or a tightening of the uterus in specific locations (usually around the front & top).
The main thing to note is that they do not increase in frequency, duration or pain level. In other words, they eventually stop and aren’t too terribly painful. I say this, but for many first time mamas, they are actually painful. But what you’ll realize is that in comparison to true labor contractions, they aren’t painful. Also important to note is that many mamas report Braxton Hicks to increase at night. This can lead to an excited & sleepless night...only to realize that labor is not actually starting!
The best way to determine if they’re the real deal or not (especially if you’re farther along and labor can begin at any moment) is to conduct a test.
Drink a glass of water. Dehydration can cause an increase in contractions.
Lie down. Movement can increase contractions.
Take a bath or shower. Warm water can relax your body and often will cause your contractions to decrease.
If all else fails, go to sleep. If you wake up and they are gone, then you know it wasn’t the real deal!
Somewhere in the middle of practice contractions & real labor is our not-so-favorite-friend, prodromal labor. Prodromal labor is very similar to true labor; your contractions may hurt, they may increase in frequency and duration. But what prodromal labor doesn't do is keep going. You may be feeling contractions strong for hours, and then all the sudden - they stop.
This can go on for days (even weeks). I've actually had prodromal labor with all three of my births. It's terrible and I wouldn't wish it upon anyone! It's thought that one of the causes of prodromal labor is baby being in a bad position. This would make sense for my births because Girl 1 had her head turned to the side (asynclitic), Girl 2 was breech (we didn't know it), and Girl 3 had her hand by her cheek, so she couldn't engage well with my cervix.
You can help baby get into a better position by doing a few things:
The Miles Circuit - click the link to read my blog about how to do the Miles Circuit. It put me into labor with Girl 1 & Girl 3.
Stretching really well - prenatal yoga will help this!
Try The Jiggle
I often say that when you're in labor, you'll know it. True labor always follows these specific rules:
Increase in frequency - no matter what you do (lie down, take a bath, sleep, drink water), your contractions continue & get closer together.
Increase in duration - the contractions themselves last longer. Usually active labor is considered to be contractions that last about 60 seconds.
Increase in pain level - real contractions are more painful. In my experience, real contractions wrap around my body & shoot down my legs. Some women say that they feel it more in their back. Other women also describe more downward pressure during the contraction. Regardless, the pain is different and more intense.
Are there some moms that don't follow these exact rules? Yes! I've heard a few birth stories where the mom has contractions 8-10 minutes apart and then BAM...has the baby. There are also moms who go from no contractions to contractions 2-3 minutes apart with their baby born within a couple hours.
The best indication of where you're at in labor is how you feel. If you can't talk, you don't want to laugh or be distracted, you find yourself unable to think clearly and the pain is intense, you're in labor!
If you're patiently (or impatiently) waiting for labor to start - take heart! You WILL have your baby eventually. No one is pregnant forever!