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Is It Real Labour? Or Is It Practice Contractions?

Pregnant woman hold belly, looking down, deciding if the cramps are real labour

When having your first baby, as you get close to the end of your pregnancy, every twinge and ache can send your brain spinning, is labour starting? As things begin to gear up for labour, many times these aches and cramps or braxton hicks contractions are just your body practicing, or training for the big day. Your body doesn't go from couch potato to marathon runner, it has to train and that's what's happening. Actually quite a bit is happening during this time period, so let's break it down.

Cramps - Braxton Hicks Or Real Labour?

During your third trimester, you may begin to feel your belly tightening, or periodically becoming firm and hard. For some, these braxton hicks cramps aren't noticeable, but for some they can be uncomfortable. Even if you do not feel them, they are happening. These cramps, even ones that feel intense, are not strong enough to change your cervix much. You will also find that as you approach the end of your pregnancy, they will be come more frequent and the strength of them may grow.

In order to determine if these cramps are actual contractions or if they are still braxton hicks, there are some things you can do.

  • Have a warm bath or shower - this will slow or stop braxton hicks but if it's true labour, they cramps will continue and intensify into contractions.

  • Rest - Braxton hicks are aggravated by being very busy. Stop what you are doing, take a rest and if the camps slow and disappear, then it wasn't labour

  • Get hydrated - Braxton hicks are also aggravated by dehydration. While resting, drink some water, get hydrated and that will help slow or calm down these practice cramps.

If you have cramping, true labour contractions will get longer, stronger and fall into a time-able patter that will get closer together.


Discover how to time contractions and help in determining when to go to the hospital.


Mucous Plug

In the days to weeks before your labour begins, you may notice an increase in mucous production and possibly a clump of mucous that had been corking your cervix and is a defence barrier for baby against infection.

If you notice the loss of your mucous plus, don't get overly excited. For most first time birthing parents, when the mucous plug is dislodged, labour is still days to weeks away. As a doula of 18 years, I have only seen three times, when a mucous plug was lost and labour started with hours.

In the lead up to losing your mucous plug, you may experience more cramping as previously mentioned. This cramping is loosening up your cervix, and it may actually thin out and dilated slightly. But it's not labour. When this happens, the plug, which is held in your cervix by pressure, is now able to slip out or break down and fall out over a few days. Then any cramping you have been experiencing, will likely calm down or stop all together.

So what to do when you notice you have lost your mucous plug? Nothing. Go about your business, labour is coming, it's just not likely coming immediately.

Watery Mucous or Waters Breaking?

When you lose your mucous plug, you may feel a trickle of fluid that will come out at the same time. This fluid is a water mucous found between the lining of the uterus and the amniotic sac. It is a lubricant that helps prevent the amniotic sac from sticking to the lining of the uterus. When the mucous plug is dislodged, any excess of this lubricant will trickle out.

When that happens you may think, 'Oh, my water has broken!' But wait, let's see if that's true.

If your waters have truly broken, then that fluid will continue to trickle and leak until baby is born. When you sit, stand, move around or when baby shifts around, you will have little leaks and will have to wear a pad. However, if the trickle happens, and it stops, and doesn't happen again, then it's likely just that lubricant and your waters haven't broken.

If you are unsure, absolutely give your hospital a call and they will likely have you come in to check.

Overall, the cramps, leaking and being anxious about your pending birth, can all lead you to believe that what is happening is real labour and send you into the hospital before things actually get going. So my advice is, when you think it might be labour, just stop, take a rest, or have a warm shower and carefully look at what might be going on. And when in doubt, give your hospital or midwife or doula a call and get some advice.


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