It can be difficult to know exactly when labor begins in earnest. But some signs are unmistakable. One such occurs when your new baby's head exerts pressure on the amniotic sac and it breaks. When your 'water breaks' (the liquid isn't just water, but amniotic fluid), labor is imminent.
Unfortunately, 'imminent' doesn't mean 'will occur within 10.5 hours' or any exact amount of time. The time to the beginning of regular contractions and actual delivery, can vary enormously from woman to woman and even child to child.
Nevertheless, when you feel that trickle or gush of colorless fluid flow down your leg, it's time to get ready. On average, labor will begin within 12 to 24 hours later. For some, the time is much sooner.
Note the time, wipe away the fluid and clean the vagina to minimize the risk of infection. Don't bathe. Look for any green or brownish fluid, the meconium, which is from your baby's bowel movement. That's an indicator of fetal stress and should be reported to your physician immediately.
Contractions will follow shortly.
The uterus is a muscle and one of its roles is to force the baby out into the world through the birth canal. The contractions you feel are that muscle tensing. They will usually be preceded by dull cramps in the lower back or pelvis. When they happen regularly for an hour, lasting at least 30 seconds each, gaining in intensity, actual labor has started.
Since they can vary from woman to woman, try to verify that the contractions are labor by varying your position. Move around and sit. See if they still occur. Remember to keep a close eye on the clock or your watch. Timing the events is important.
First pregnancies will often take a little longer, so try to avoid any sense of panic. When contractions are coming five minutes apart for an hour, it's time to head to the hospital. Err on the side of caution, though. The number is just an average and it's best to avoid complications by being too early, rather than too late.
Severe pain, rather than regular (even if uncomfortable) contractions can be a sign of placenta previa. This is a condition in which the placenta can block the exit from the uterus. Or, the pain can be the result of placental abruption, where the placenta separates but limits the baby's oxygen supply. Call your doctor.
Almost all labors proceed without incident. Stay calm, execute your plan and get ready for a healthy baby.