Many first-time mamas worry that they won’t know when they’re really in labor.

We remember those days. You can’t really imagine what labor will feel like—and many of your signs seem more like false labor than the real thing. So how can you tell?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists shares some key ways that most women can tell they’re really in labor.

You've already experienced 'lightening.'

Lightening is feeling as if the baby has dropped lower, ACOG explains. This happens from a few weeks to a few hours before labor begins.

Some moms say they can feel this definitively. Others can’t. Your doctor can help you determine how low baby is in your pelvis during your (many) late-pregnancy checkups.

You notice a sudden increase in vaginal discharge.

An increase in vaginal discharge (clear, pink or slightly bloody) is also known as the “bloody show.” A thick mucus plug has accumulated at the cervix during pregnancy. When the cervix begins to dilate, the plug is pushed into the vagina.

This can happen several days before labor begins or at the onset of labor.

You may also experience your water breaking—whether in one big gush or a continuous trickle. Your medical team can perform a test to tell, but if it’s broken, it means that baby will arrive soon!

Contractions that become stronger + more regular.

When you’re really in labor, ACOG explains that contractions will typically:

  • Come at regular intervals and, as time goes on, get closer together. Each lasts about 30 to 70 seconds.
  • Continue, despite your movement.
  • Increase in strength steadily.
  • Usually start in the back and move to the front.

Motherly tip: Try using a contraction timer app to make it easy to tell when contractions are becoming more regular.

In contrast, with false labor, often a precursor to actual labor, contractions:

  • Are often irregular and do not get closer together (called Braxton Hicks contractions).
  • May stop when you walk or rest, or may even stop with a change of position.
  • Are usually weak and do not get much stronger (may be strong and then weak).
  • Are usually felt only in the front.

We’re so excited for you, mama! All our love for the journey ahead.

Share with Motherly: How you could tell you were really in labor?