Giving birth

Am I in labour?

How to tell if you're in labor or if it's just a false alarm.

By Jessica Leeder
signs of labour Photo: iStockphoto

In the movies, the pregnant lady’s water breaks in the middle of the night, she runs around the house in a panic, her husband forgets the bag, and then they speed to the hospital. But real-life labour can be a lot less dramatic (and considerably slower going).

Sure signs Active labour pains come at regular intervals with increasing intensity over a long period of time. An easy-to-remember formula for figuring out what’s going on in your belly is the “4-1-1” test: If contractions are four minutes apart, last for about one minute and recur for one hour or more, chances are you’re in labour. Other signs to watch for: your water breaks (note that this doesn’t always happen) or — TMI alert! — your mucus plug comes out, and your stools are looser than usual. Once you’re at the hospital, or your midwife arrives, a pelvic exam can confirm and measure changes in your cervix. If it’s dilating — softening, shortening and opening — the baby is en route.

Read more: Strategies for an easier labour>

False alarms Pre-labour, or Braxton Hicks contractions, are common any time after 16 weeks. These “practice contractions” are usually painless and irregular. They don’t form any sort of pattern, last very long or dilate the cervix. Among first-time moms, they often go unnoticed or are written off as cramps or muscle spasms. “Often if you’ve had a very busy day, in the evening you’ll have about an hour of what feels like strong menstrual cramps,” says Jennifer Gardiner, a registered midwife in Toronto. “They’ll go away when you rest.” However, if the pains start up again and increase in intensity, you may be in early labour.

How much time do I have If you think you are in labour, don’t panic and rush to the hospital — they may send you home. Take a moment to assess your pain levels and the intensity of contractions. “If you’re still laughing and smiling and wondering if it’s time to go, it’s not time to go,” says Douglas Black, chief of obstetrics at the Ottawa Hospital and president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. “Stay home, have a bath. There’s no need to rush just yet.” This is especially true for rookies: First-time labours tend to progress more slowly. Typically, at least 12 hours pass between the first contraction and baby’s birth. The early labour stage can last anywhere from two hours to more than a day.


Originally posted in April 2013. 

This article was originally published on Apr 23, 2014

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