When you think of going into labor, you probably imagine your water breaking and contractions starting.

But, labor is actually a process that may begin weeks before delivery and doesn’t end until the afterbirth, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Stage 1: The onset of contractions
Stage 2: You begin pushing
Stage 3: Sometimes referred to as the placental stage, this begins with the actual birth and ends once you have delivered the placenta and afterbirth

Okay, That Seems Obvious. What About False Labor?

It’s common for women to feel minor contractions before labor really starts, according to the NIH. These contractions are called Braxton Hicks and are a sign of false labor. False labor can happen anywhere from a month to a day before you give birth. The closer you get to your due date, the harder it may be to tell false labor from the real thing.

  • Contractions are usually irregular in duration, frequency and intensity
  • Contractions don’t intensify with time
  • Contractions may stop if you rest or change positions

The NIH recommends you take a warm bath and drink lots of fluids to ease discomfort during false labor.

So What are Real Contractions Like?

  • True contractions feel like menstrual cramps or an ache in your lower back
  • They are regular and predictably patterned (i.e. they occur every # minutes)
  • They increase in duration, frequency and intensity as time goes by
  • You’ll feel them first in your lower back and then they’ll move around to the front (or visa versa)
  • They do not go away if you shift your body position

Source: American Pregnancy Association

How do I Know if I’m Going Into Labor?

Maybe you’re getting closer to your due date, but remember that date is not an exact prediction of when you will deliver. You may go into labor anywhere between 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after your due date.

The American Pregnancy Association (APA) shares a number of signs that your labor is approaching:

Your baby drops lower into your pelvis. While this may relieve the pressure on your diaphragm—making breathing easier—it can also mean feeling more pressure on your bladder.

Your water breaks. Contrary to popular belief, only 1 out of every 10 women experiences a true gush of fluid when their water breaks.

The fluid should be clear and odorless. If it’s not, let your doctor know.

You suddenly have burst of energy—despite how exhausted you’ve been. Try not to feed into the temptation to become overly active. Your body needs rest and strength for the upcoming labor and delivery.

You have consistent contractions. They may occur as far apart as every 20 to 30 minutes in the beginning. Then they’ll come more frequently. The APA recommends you contact your doctor when your contractions are 5 minutes apart.

Instead of waiting for your contractions to come naturally and for your water to break on its own, your doctor might decide it’s better to induce labor.

Here are 3 reasons why your doctor might induce labor:

  • Your water has broken, but labor hasn’t begun on its own
  • There is not enough amniotic fluid
  • You’ve developed high blood pressure

You have health problems, such as kidney disease