There are some parts of pregnancy that don’t get talked about much. Like lochia, the normal bleeding that occurs postpartum. Or vernix, the cheesy white substance covering a newborn’s skin. Or, of course, the mucus plug.

If you’re wondering what a mucus plug is, what it looks like, if labor starts once you lose it, and if you should be alarmed, well, you’re in the right place.

Bonus: We’ve even got an animation of losing the mucus plug below!

What is the mucus plug?

The mucus plug is just what it sounds like, a plug made of mucus. During pregnancy, the mucus plug develops and lodges in the cervix to block the cervical canal. Its job is to protect your uterus from unwanted bacteria and pathogens that could enter in, like from sexual activity or vaginal exams.

Cervical mucus is naturally rich in antimicrobial components, but the mucus plug also contains double the bacteria busting properties. The lysozymes in the mucus plug destroy the cell walls of bacteria. (source)

Secretions from the cervix, and an increase in estrogens and progesterones begin to form the mucus plug early on in pregnancy, when the ovum makes it’s way to the uterus. Even though the mucus plug lasts until the end of your pregnancy, your body is constantly using new mucus to create it, keeping it fresh.

What does the mucus plug look like?

They can be clear, white, green, slightly pink or brown. (Kinda like the mucus that expels from your nose and throat!) It has a gelatinous look and is thick while in the cervix, but typically becomes thin and more liquid once expelled. It may be tinged with blood, or it could just look like the gunk in your toddler’s Kleenex. Normally though, mucus plugs are typically off white with streaks of pink. (source)

The mucus plug is about 4-5 centimeters long, or about 1 ounce in volume. It may seem like less though if your body doesn’t expel the plug all at once, which is common.

Mucus plug photos

Several Mama Natural readers generously contributed these photos of their mucus plugs. Thanks mamas!

This mucus plug photo is from a mama who lost her mucus plug six hours before giving birth to her second child at 40 weeks 4 days pregnant.
This mucus plug photo is from a mama who lost her mucus plug at 38 weeks and 1 day. She went into early labor 12 hours later and delivered her baby girl 14 hours after that. This is the photo of her mucus plug that she texted to her doula to let her know she was close to going into labor.
This mama lost her mucus plug on June 24th, early in the morning, and had her daughter on June 27th just before lunch time.

How/why do we lose the mucus plug?

Once the baby “drops” and settles lower into the pelvis, this starts the process of the cervix opening. When the cervix begins to “ripen” and soften in preparation for labor, the mucus plug is no longer held firmly in place and falls out. These changes in the cervix can cause capillaries to burst, creating the pink tinge of the mucus plug.

It can come out all at once, in one big chunk, or it can come out in pieces over a period of time. If this isn’t your first time around the block, your cervix is more elastic making it much more likely for the mucus plug to come out in one piece, with little to no blood.

The plug is commonly expelled after a trip to the powder room, or during a shower, making it difficult to observe. Because vaginal discharge is increased during pregnancy anyway, you may not even notice it at all! (source)

When do women normally lose their mucus plug?

Your body gets rid of the mucus plug typically between 37 and 42 weeks of gestation. It can even happen as late as right before delivery! Some women though can lose it earlier in the pregnancy, and again, the body will create more mucus to protect your baby.

Once your estrogen peaks at the end of pregnancy, it signals the body that it’s time to get rid of the mucus plug. These hormones help to thin the plug so it can be eliminated. (source)

What does it mean if your mucus plug comes out?

Losing your mucus plug usually means that your body is preparing for labor. The mucus plug is, after all, one of the main lines of defense between your womb and the outside world. Your cervix is likely effacing, or dilating, or both to get ready for the big day. Effacement is when the cervix thins and stretches, while dilation is when it opens. (source)

Typically, first-time moms don’t actively dilate until labor starts.

Is losing the mucus plug a sign of labor?

Even though your body is showing signs of preparing for labor, don’t grab your birth bag just yet. Birth could be hours away, or it could be a few weeks away. Losing the mucus plug is an early sign that labor is soon, but it does not mean labor is imminent…yet. It depends on each woman, and there is no cookie cutter answer. (source)

How soon does labor start after you lose it?

If this is your first baby, then it could likely be a few days or weeks before labor begins. However, if this isn’t your first time around the block, then you’re more likely to be in the “give birth in a few hours” camp. There really is no definite timeline here.

Here’s an animation of what happens when you lose the mucus plug right before birth

Mucus plug animation before childbirth

What to do if/when you lose your mucus plug

How you handle the situation depends on several factors. If you’re 37-42 weeks along and notice that you’ve definitely lost the mucus plug, it simply means that baby will be arriving in the near future. (source)

The loss of the mucus plug can be accompanied by contractions that increase in intensity and duration, and/or your water breaking. If this happens, then labor is definitely on its way and you need to contact your birth team.

Is it okay if I lose the plug early?

Even though it’s an early sign of labor, the mucus plug can regenerate itself to some extent if it’s lost earlier than the 37 week mark. As long as contractions haven’t started and there’s not a lot of bright red blood, there’s typically nothing to worry about. (source)

If your midwife or doctor does vaginal exams in the third trimester, this can also cause you to lose the mucus plug early.

However, if it’s lost before the 37 week period, be sure to let your midwife know so she can keep an eye on things. Losing it early on in pregnancy could also indicate premature labor.

Is there an infection risk from losing the mucus plug early?

If you do happen to pass the mucus plug early on in the pregnancy, then there’s a likely chance it will regenerate. Since your hormones are still in protect mode, they can continue to regenerate the mucus plug as usual. (source) Even if it doesn’t regenerate, you still have the amniotic sac surrounding the baby, protecting them from infection and pathogens.

The amniotic sac is the last line of defense between the outside world and your baby, but the mucus plug is really the heavy hitter when it comes to destroying incoming pathogens. To be on the safe side, if the mucus plug is lost it’s recommended by some to refrain from sexual activity. It also means no more trips to the city pool, swimming in the lake or anywhere else that may carry a risk of infection.

Should I call the doctor after I lose my mucus plug?

If the mucus plug is accompanied by a large amount of bright red blood, about 1Tbsp or more, that can be a cause for concern and you should contact your midwife or doctor. Because it could be a sign of complications such as placenta previa, it’s important to talk to your healthcare team right away.

Placental abruption is a rarer condition that can also cause bright red bleeding. During a placental abruption, the placenta detaches either partially or fully from the uterine wall. (source)

If, however, the discharge looks normal in color, and you’re in the 37-42 week end zone, then there’s no need to worry. Just let your birth team know when contractions begin or your water breaks.

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Is the mucus plug the same thing as bloody show?

There seems to be some confusion what the difference (if any) there is between bloody show and the mucus plug. While the mucus plug can be slightly pink or even have streaks of blood in it, it is not necessarily the same thing as bloody show. (source)

The term bloody show is used when there is blood passing out of the vagina and it’s mixed with a little mucus. This can occur after a vaginal exam, and usually during labor as a sign of progress. (source) While the mucus plug is a thick gelatinous plug of mucus, bloody show is a stringy mucus. (source)

Recap

So to review, the mucus plug:

  • Can be many different colors, but typically a gelatinous off white with or without pink streaking.
  • Is ok to lose early, just let your birth team know
  • Isn’t cause for worry, unless there’s over 1 Tbsp of blood when you lose it
  • Labor may or may not be starting soon after you lose it
  • Is not (necessarily) the same as bloody show

My experience with the mucus plug

In my first pregnancy, I lost my mucus plug and didn’t know what it was. For me, it was very liquidy and mostly clear. I woke up and felt like I peed in my pants. I went into the midwives office as I thought my water broke. She tested the pH and confirmed it was my mucus plug. My labor begin 12 hours later. So for me, it was definitely a sign that labor was eminent.

Other natural mamas’ experience with the mucus plug

I asked the moms on my Facebook page when they lost their mucus plug and how soon after did labor start. Here are some of their responses.

  • I lost my plug with each pregnancy as I was having mild cramping before labor/birth. Only hours before. Looks like a pink and clear swirl ball of snot about the size of your palm. – Jennora W.
  • Both my kids were born at 37 weeks. Never saw it with my first, but with my second I shed my mucus plug for a course of 10 days. I was having mild contractions and looked like large amounts of semen with a tinge of blood, varying in size. So gross but so natural. – Brooke V.
  • With my first I lost it a little at a time starting a few days before labor. With my second I lost it halfway through labor. – Tara K.
  • I lost mine about an hour and a half into labor. It reminded me of seaweed only red. – Kristy Y.
  • I don’t remember seeing mine at all – I got to the hospital at 6cm and still hadn’t seen anything. Could have came out after but idk how I could have a mucus plug still at 6cm! – Hannah M.
  • I think mine didn’t come out until I was already quite far along in labor at the birth center and was in the tub there. It came out in the tub, so I didn’t really see it much! – Patty D.
  • Not until I was hours into labor, and I told my midwife it looked like a small jellyfish like you see washed up at low tide. – Jillian K.
  • The only time I noticed losing a mucus plug was with my third child. I noticed it when my water broke, contractions started about 3 hours later. – Gloria H.
  • I have five kids and I’ve never seen a mucus plug. – Liz W.
  • I lost my mucus plug roughly 12 hours before active labor started with both kids. – Stephanie J.
  • Mine fell out a week and a half before my daughters were born. It started prodromal labor though. – Meredith

How about you?

How did you lose your mucus plug during pregnancy? Did you even know you had a mucus plug?! Let us know in the comments below!