How to know when you are in Labor

Many women experience false labor or pre-labor and arrive at the hospital much too early, especially during first pregnancies. This is stressful and uncomfortable, and can lead to increased discomfort, discouragement, and extended waiting time in the hospital.

How can you be certain it’s time to go to the hospital or call the midwife?

First, you should know about Braxton-Hicks contractions. These are sometimes called practice or warm-up contractions, which is just what they are. Braxton-Hicks contractions are irregular and don’t lengthen and strengthen; they also often cause no pain.

What’s a good test for Braxton-Hicks contractions? If you can diminish or stop your contractions by walking and stretching, you are probably not in active labor. True labor progresses steadily, with contractions that do three important things: lengthen, strengthen, and become regular. Walking and moving will only make them stronger.

They usually begin to tighten your muscles in the back and move forward, and your cervix is actually changing (thinning or effacing, and opening or dilating). Latent labor moves your cervix along from 4 to 7 centimeters. Contractions will be mild and 5-30 minutes apart, starting to space out regularly.

This is the time to wrap up plans, double check your bags, water plants, make sure there are no wet clothes in the washer, and take out the trash. If you have other children, you should probably make sure your arrangements for their care during the birth are going to work out according to plan.

You’ll feel very excited, and maybe a little anxious; it’s time to call family and friends! Be sure to eat nutritious, strengthening snacks with plenty of protein, and be sure to drink lots of water. This is a great time to get a nap if you can. Periodically time your contractions and write them down or use a free computer program online to track them. There are even several contraction-timing applications available for iPhones and iPods.

The rule of thumb for labor is this: when your contractions have been 5 minutes or less apart and lasting more than 60 seconds for an hour, it’s time to go to the hospital. Call your provider first, though some are now suggesting that first-time moms stay at home until it becomes hard to breathe through a contraction. Labor really does progress much better at home, so there’s no rush to get to the hospital.

Active labor is next, with stronger and longer contractions. Your body is really doing some work now! It’s time to focus more and rely on your support people for encouragement. If you’re having a hospital birth, now is the time to get checked in.

If you do discover your contractions aren’t true labor, don’t be discouraged! False or pre-labor is getting your body ready for labor, and sometimes it’s also moving the baby around to the right position for labor to begin. It’s important to remember, take heart; you really won’t be pregnant forever.