Partner's Guide to Labor

Recognizing True Labor

Contrary to popular movies, labor seldom begins with a sudden strong contraction that makes the mother double over. Instead, her body begins preparing for labor with contractions that come and go weeks before the baby is born. These contrations are called Braxton-Hicks.

It seems unfair that the best advice most experienced mothers will give you is, "You'll know when it's labor." Even if it is true, it is not especially helpful for the first time mother or her labor support. As her labor support, you will likely be the first person she asks, "Do you think this is really labor?" What signs should you both be looking for to know labor is really starting?

It is normal to go through periods of Braxton-Hicks contractions that may be regular or irregular for days or weeks before true labor begins. These contractions may feel strong or mild, some women do not notice them. But they will have some differences from true labor contractions.

The first difference is that true labor contractions will not space out or slow down when a woman changes activities, pre-labor contractions will. In fact, very often true labor contractions will increase with activity change.

Another difference has to do with the overall pattern of contractions. In true labor, contractions will build in intensity and length, and they will get closer together. Pre-labor contractions will remain the same for many hours, sometimes days.

Testing for True Labor

There are a few "self-tests" you can do to determine if what she is experiencing is actually labor.

Drink some water

Dehydration can cause contractions that look just like true labor, but are not productive (there is no cervical change).

Eat something

Some women find hunger brings on Braxton-Hicks (pre-labor) contractions. Eating seems to stop these contractions.

Change activity

With pre-labor, changing activity (like resting if you have been walking around or going for a walk if you have been resting) can cause the contractions to stop.

Observe the contraction pattern

Even if she is having contractions less than 10 minutes apart, it may not be true labor. Time five contractions, wait an hour or two and time five more. If the contractions are staying the same (not getting closer together or longer) it is pre-labor.