The mucous plug is another one of those pregnancy specific terms which comes to mean something pretty important when you’ve got one. And during pregnancy the mucous plug takes on a whole dimension of importance, because without it your baby would be at risk of bacterial infection.
What is a mucous plug?
The mucous plug is thick column of mucous which sits in the cervix and blocks off the entry of bacteria which could otherwise track their way into the uterus. The mucous plug is essentially a collection of thick cervical mucous which builds up to form a very effective protective plug or stopper. Before labour begins, the mucous plug comes away and is passed painlessly via the mother’s vagina.
But what’s a bloody show then?
The proper term for the mucous plug is operculum – a Latin name which literally means “little lid”. But the most common terms are the mucous plug, a show or a “bloody show”. Some women become confused between all the terms, but they are essentially the same thing. Don’t be concerned though if yours does not have any evidence of a small amount of blood, old or fresh.
What does the mucous plug look like?
The mucous plug is not the most attractive substance. You’d be hard pressed to find any description of it which isn’t pretty biological; “a long thick slug” , “like a glob of semen”, “sort of like the snot which comes out of your nose when you have a bad cold” are just some of the analogies of the mucous plug.
Sometimes it can be clear or tinged with blood, which is either bright red or brownish. It can be either thick, or long and stringy with a sticky consistency. The mucous plug can come away together and all at once or, as one continuous piece or over a few days as separate clumps. There is no smell or odour to the mucous plug; it just doesn’t look that great.
What causes the blood?
Towards the end of pregnancy, the cervix starts to thin and dilate. This is necessary in order for it to fully open and allow the baby’s head to pass through. All this stretching can tear small blood vessels in the cervix, causing the mucous plug to become tinged with blood. This means that small amounts of blood streaking through the mucous plug are very normal and not cause for concern.
How will I know if I’ve passed my mucous plug?
You may see something unusual in the toilet bowl after you’ve been or evidence of it in your underwear. Some women notice the mucous plug has come away when wiping themselves after using the toilet. Don’t worry though if you are in labour and you’ve not been aware you’ve passed your mucous plug. It can just be excused off as a heavy mucousy vaginal discharge, which is completely normal during pregnancy, particularly in the last few weeks.
Go easy in there!
Sometimes the mucous plug comes away when the healthcare practitioner has done a vaginal examination. During labour it is valuable to check the dilation/opening of the mother’s cervix. This needs to get to around 10cms before the baby can fit through. Checking the cervix means the mucous plug can be disturbed and it is not uncommon for there to be signs of it on the gloves of the midwife or doctor. Often, more of the mucous plug comes away after the examination is finished. Midwives become reassured when a heavy, positive show appears when a mother is actively labouring. Then, it can be a sign that the cervix is really opening up and thinning out in preparation for childbirth.
Another common time for it to appear is after having intercourse. This can disrupt the tissues around the cervix and cause slight dilation, especially when a baby is close to term. It is common for women to ring labour ward seeking reassurance that they’ve not done anything wrong or harmed their baby when they notice a bloody show after sexual intercourse.
Occasionally, the mucous plug is not passed and noticeable until the waters have broken. Then it can become mixed through the amniotic fluid and isn’t as clear as it would otherwise be when it’s on its own. There always comes a point in vaginal deliveries where the mucous plug is passed because the cervix can no longer retain it.
I’ve passed a mucous plug – does this mean I’m in labour?
No, it does not. Although passing the mucous plug is a sign that the cervix is opening or dilating, it is not a sign of labour. It may be days or even weeks before you have your baby. However, it is a sign that your body is preparing for childbirth, so don’t be too disappointed.
Should I call my doctor or midwife if I’ve passed my mucous plug?
No, passing the mucous plug is a sign that you will have the baby, but exactly when is yet to be determined. Unless you start passing blood or clots, or you are having uterine cramping and/or pain, then it is reasonable to just sit and wait. Obviously if you are worried about yourself or the baby, being checked over by a health professional is important.
If I’ve passed my mucous plug does this mean my baby is at a higher risk of infection?
No, the baby is still protected by the amniotic sac. Unless this has ruptured and the waters broken, the baby is still quite safe. The mucous plug just adds another layer of protection, but once it’s gone, there is no additional risk to the mother or her baby.
What is important to know about the mucous plug
- Passing a mucous plug is a normal and non concerning occurrence. However, if at any stage during your pregnancy you are feeling any contractions or having any bleeding, it is always important to contact your midwife or obstetrician.
- Passing a mucous plug is not a sign that labour has started. It may be days or even weeks between having a “show” and having the baby.
- True labour is defined as when the mother is experiencing regular, painful and progressive contractions or her waters have broken. Not when she has had passed a mucous plug.
- It can be useful to use a pad or a panty liner if you are concerned about underwear staining. Showing this to the midwife or obstetrician, if necessary, can help to confirm that you have passed your mucous plug.