For first-time moms the signs and symptoms are actually pretty specific. (Having said that, many women will report being "unsure" if they were in real labor.)
To help you avoid being in that pregnant and confused category, here are some key things for you and your partner to watch for:
Your mucous plug drops. This is often an actual occurrence for first-timers. It is a few tablespoons of egg white-looking mucous that is streaked with pinkish-brownish blood. It has been acting like a cork throughout the pregnancy and “comes out” anywhere from hours to days before labor begins. It could be a plop into the toilet bowl or a surprise in your panties. It is useful in that it is a sign that labor is brewing – that you have a matter of hours to a matter of days before labor begins.
The amniotic sac breaks. The bag of water can break spontaneously in two ways: either a high leak that creates a trickle of fluid or a low break that results in Niagara Falls! If you are having a trickle or increasing dampness that requires a light maxi pad, be suspicious; your water may have broken. If you have a gush of fluid, your water has broken. In both cases, you need to call your OB/midwife/hospital to get your next set of instructions. They may have you stay home for a bit or they may want you to come in to be evaluated.
Contractions come. Uterine contractions (an internal tightening and pelvic pressure where the entire abdomen gets hard) that come in a regular pattern are the surest sign that labor is starting. The difficulty that most people have is distinguishing between “practice” Braxton Hicks contractions and real labor contractions. The words I use to help determine false from real labor are: STRONGER, LONGER, CLOSER. Contractions that get stronger, last longer, and get closer together over time indicate true labor. This is in contrast to false labor, when contractions are short, irregular, and intermittent.
Your Next Steps
At your next prenatal visit ask them whom you should notify when you are in labor, the water has broken, or you think it’s time to go. This answer varies on your doctor and hospital, so ask ahead of time and have this number clearly posted on the refrigerator.
While in labor at home, you will want to continue doing kick counts (one way to check in on your baby’s well-being from home) once an hour. You are looking for an average of five fetal movements in an hour; many babies will move 15 times in the first five minutes! The point is that after you get five distinct movements, you can stop counting. After you are admitted to the hospital, the healthcare team will take over monitoring the baby.