It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time mom or not, it’s incredibly normal to have doubts about recognizing the onset of labor and whether or not it’s time for baby to be born. We’ve all heard the stories of women not noticing the signs that delivery is imminent and end up having their babies before they can even get to the hospital. This can be a scary thought; wondering if you’re going to be one of those women.

It’s important to remember that these women are the exception to the rule. It is far more common to have plenty of warning that labor has arrived and for it to develop slowly over the next several hours. Labor and child birth is very rarely like we see in the movies: the woman feels a sharp pain, her water breaks and they rush off to the hospital as contractions come quicker and quicker.

IMPORTANT: You can listen to all the stories about child birth from friends, but the pain and symptoms you feel could be completely different. Everyone experiences things differently, so be alert!

Whether you’ve opted for a natural delivery or a caesarean section (C-section), it’s important to be able to identify the signs of labor. In the case of a caesarean, you may have agreed with your doctor that you want to wait until the baby is ready to be born before having the operation. Alternatively, you may have a set date, but need to be aware in case labor starts before your due date.

So what exactly are the main characteristics of labor?

Latent and active labor

Labor basically falls into two distinct phases: latent and active. Everyone starts in the latent phase but the signals may be too subtle to notice sometimes. Once you hit active labor, it’s time to get to the hospital.

Have you heard of the old wives’ tale that says if you have an overwhelming urge to clean your home and get it ready for baby, labor is about it hit? Well, this can actually be one of the very first signs of latent labor. Your hormones are kicking in and instinct is telling you to get things ready for your baby because it is about to come. On the other hand, the light exercise of cleaning could actually activate your labor. This instinct to clean could be nature’s way of getting you to move around and activate the muscles needed for birth.

Remember, labor varies from woman to woman and from pregnancy to pregnancy. The most important thing is to be aware of the symptoms and give yourself enough time to get to the hospital.

The key symptoms of latent labor

  • Back pain and cramps
  • Your stomach hardening at regular intervals – 5-10 minutes in between each contraction
  • Mild bleeding or a mucosal discharge from the vagina
  • Pressure on the lower abdomen and pelvis as the baby starts to position itself for birth
  • A change in the cervix as it begins to soften and dilate – this is a sign that only a doctor or midwife can check

It is very common for labor to show itself gradually with mild pain to begin with. Sometimes women only feel a slight pain in the back or around their kidneys. Some also feel pangs in the vagina, which is a sign that dilation is about to start.

The most important thing to note is that the latent phase of labor can actually start several days before you enter into the active stage.

The key symptoms of active labor

Active labor is essentially the same as the latent phase, it’s just that everything is more intense.

  • The rupturing of your membranes – more commonly referred to as your water breaking
  • More painful and intense contractions that come at shorter intervals – less than one minute apart means that birth is imminent
  • The baby drops in your abdomen – your baby bump will be visibly lower
  • Dilation of the cervix of more than 4cm
  • The strong urge to push down

When is the right time to go to hospital?

The best time to head off to the hospital is once you enter active labor, just as the symptoms start to get stronger and more intense. In fact, most hospitals will only admit you into the maternity ward once you show these symptoms and are 4cm dilated with rhythmic contractions.

If you plan to have a caesarean section but you wanted to wait until the baby was ready to be born, it’s essential that you go through to hospital and call your doctor as soon as you feel like you’ve reached active labor. If you go too far down the path of this phase, you will have to go through a natural birth. Once you’re 10cm dilated, the doctors won’t have time to perform the operation.

Another key moment in the active labor phase is once you reach 5cm dilation. This is the point when the medical staff are able to administer an epidural. This is a very popular form of anesthesia in pregnant women for both natural births and caesareans.

When you arrive at the hospital, the staff will examine you and determine whether or not to admit you. If you aren’t far enough along in your labor, they may send you home to wait until the symptoms are closer to actual birth. It is important for you, however, to monitor your symptoms very closely and return to the hospital at the right time.

Remember, most women can take between 12 and 48 hours to reach the end stage of labor – especially if it’s their first pregnancy. Other women may only have about two hours of latent labor before heading very quickly into the active phase. It all depends on your body.

Once you’ve been admitted into hospital and your body is now in the final phase of active labor, things will start to happen quickly. You will likely feel an incredible urge to push. This is called the expulsion phase, or transitional or advanced labor. This is the strongest, most intense stage of giving birth. Remember to keep breathing through the pain and let your body do what it is meant to do.

When should you expect to go into labor?

The average period of gestation is 38 to 41 weeks. If your labor starts at any point during this time, doctors are happy that the baby has reached full term in its development. Actually, a baby born at 37 weeks is also considered fully viable.

Any baby born at 36 weeks or earlier is considered premature and could be at risk. The moment you feel any symptoms of labor and you haven’t got to the 37 week stage, you should contact your doctor or head over to the hospital for a check-up.

It’s really essential for a woman to be aware of her body while pregnant. Things are changing all the time and the dramatic moment in the movies isn’t usually how most women know that they’re going into labor. There are plenty of subtle signs that are likely to appear before you actually enter the active phase and your water breaks.

Readers’ questions:

How can I accelerate labor naturally?

Once you reach the final stretch of pregnancy, the waiting can feel like it’s going on forever. If you want to try and encourage your body to go into labor without using a drug like oxytocin, there are a few tried and tested methods that are natural and safe. A little light exercise like walking often speeds things up. Sexual intercourse is another common method – although be sure to get your obstetrician’s advice first. You can also eat some spicy food like Mexican or Indian dishes to try get things moving.

How can I reduce labor pains?

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to take away the pain of labor completely since it is part of the process. However, there are several techniques you can use to decrease the level of pain that you feel. Relaxation methods are the best: meditation, breath control and massage. A nice hot bath or shower will also help to calm the body and the mind.

How should I breathe during labor?

It’s important to keep your breathing as natural as possible during labor – especially during the end stage. It’s quite normal for you to be able to maintain a natural rhythm in between contractions and then lose that when the pain hits. Just remember to find the rhythm again after each contraction. A good trick is to breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.

What does the baby experience during labor?

During labor, and especially during the final stage of giving birth, it is natural for the baby to wiggle less. This is because it has less space as it moves into and through the birth canal. Additionally, its heart rate will reduce slightly during contractions due to compression on the umbilical cord. Remember, this is entirely normal and your obstetrician will monitor both you and the baby very carefully to make sure that everything is fine.