Usually, childbirth educators and practitioners try to ease your mind with the standard answer of, 'You'll know.'
And while you will know, it's nice to have some ideas a head of time of how to know if this is really labour.
First of all your body normally gives you some signs of labour a head of time that labour is on its way. While these are signs of progress the do not mean that you will go into labour within a few hours or days. They are simply a means of saying that your body is getting ready to give birth.
Some of these signs of labour include:
A sudden burst of energy or the "nesting instinct"
Lightening or Dropping of the baby (you may be able to breathe easier and urinate more)
An upset stomach
Bloody show (this may be the cervix beginning to open, or from sex or a vaginal exam)
Loss of your mucous plug (may come out in a chunk or you may just notice it slowly over a couple of days)
Slight increase in blood pressure
Increase in practice contractions (Braxton Hicks Contractions)
Some women notice these symptoms and while others do not, either way is perfectly normal. You should not worry if you do not notice these signs. Your body is simply preparing in a different manner. They may also change from baby to baby, so what you experienced the first time may not happen the second time.
Rupture of Membranes (Water Breaking)
Sometimes labour begins with the bag of waters or membranes rupture, about 12% of the time. However, 75% of the time this does not happen until very late in labour, usually after 9 centimeters. If your water breaks you may notice a near constant trickle of fluid from the vagina or a sudden gush. You should talk to your practitioner about when to call about your waters breaking before you reach the end of your pregnancy, but you should definitely notify them if you experience the following:
Fluid is not clear, but green or brownish
You have a fever
You feel something pulsing in the vagina (If you feel this put your knees to your chest on the floor and call 911, you may have a prolapsed cord.)
It is important to not place anything inside the vagina after your water has broken, so avoid: intercourse, baths, and vaginal exams.
Getting to the Place of Birth too early
Some women will make trips to the hospital or birth center, believing they are in labour, only to be sent home. This is nothing to be worried about. It can happen to anyone, no matter how many children that you've had.
Sometimes you've just gotten there and you aren't as dilated or as far along as you thought. Most of the time you can go home to labour more in comfort and return after the contractions have picked up.
Everyone experiences labor in a different manner. What you experience may be totally different from what you have read about. Trust your body. This preparation may seem to take forever, but your body and baby are making very important changes in preparation for the birth!
Remember, that technically, true labour ends with the birth of the baby. That is the one sure fire test of real labour.
Contractions don't get closer together.
Contractions don't get stronger.
Contractions tend to be felt only in the front.
Contractions don't last longer.
Walking has no effect on the contractions.
Cervix doesn't change with contractions.
Contractions do get closer together.
Contractions do get stronger.
Contractions tend to be felt all over.
Contractions do last longer.
Walking makes the contractions stronger.
Cervix opens and thins with contractions.