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Signs You Are Going into Labor

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Your due date is near. You are anxious. You are ready to welcome your baby into the world. You are looking for the fast forward button.

Then, just when you thought you couldn’t wait any longer, you begin having mild contractions that are coming between five and 20 minutes apart. Something is happening, but you’re not sure what.

Now comes the tricky part. When should you go to the hospital?

The general rule of thumb is that you should head for the maternity department when your contractions are four minutes apart and last about one minute for at least one hour. If your water breaks, you should make a beeline for the hospital.

However, if your contractions are mild and irregular, and the time interval between them exceed five minutes, you may be in the early stages of labor, or “false labor.” The best advice may be to stay home, rest (you’ll need it later) and wait until contractions become more intense and frequent. But there are lots of variables. If you’re unsure and uneasy, it’s a good idea to call your doctor or maternity department for guidance.

Real labor or false alarm?

Trying to determine if you are in early or false labor, or if it’s the real thing is perplexing for many moms-to-be. The stakes are high. Being too nonchalant can result in a mad dash to the hospital while in excruciating pain. An overly cautious approach can make for unneeded hospital trips that end with advice to come back when the baby is ready to make an appearance.

Most medical professionals subscribe to the “better safe than sorry” approach when it comes to labor. That said, there are ways to distinguish false alarms from active labor.

False labor pains are called Braxton Hicks contractions, named after 19th century English Dr. John Braxton Hicks. These contractions, which can begin in the second trimester but are more common during the third, are basically “practice contractions.” They represent the thinning and softening of the cervix as the body prepares for delivery.

Braxton Hicks contractions tend to last an average of 30 to 60 seconds but can sometimes go on for more than two minutes. Irregular in frequency and less intense than true labor, they tend to feel more like mild menstrual cramps than actual contractions.

Taking a brief warm bath or drinking water can sometimes help, although there is no “tried and true” method that works for all women.

The real deal

One might equate false labor to an afternoon thunderstorm, while actual labor is more like Hurricane Katrina in intensity.

True labor is more rhythmic. Once the pains begin, they continue with rising frequency and intensity. False labor is uncomfortable; authentic labor is downright painful especially as contractions persist. And, real contractions do not stop if you move, shift positions, or lay down.

If you are experiencing contractions, get a watch and time the duration and the time between contractions. Once the contractions are regular in frequency, occurring less than four minutes apart with each lasting 40 seconds or more and getting stronger by the minute, it’s pretty certain that you’re almost there.

You might feel a bit nauseated, and your legs could begin to cramp. If it hasn’t already, you might feel your water break and notice pressure building in your back. The time has come to call Labor & Delivery and head for the hospital.

Your practitioner and medical professionals will guide you from this point on. The exact timing could differ depending on the mother-to-be. Whether you’re told to come quickly to the hospital could depend on how far away you live, how dilated your cervix was at your last exam, how your baby is positioned and whether or not you’ve experienced complications during pregnancy.

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