Waiting until you're officially "late" to take a pregnancy test can feel like agony, especially when you’re trying to conceive. The most frustrating part is thinking your period is late and then discovering a little blood in your underwear. Although you might feel tempted to throw in the fertility towel for the month, you could actually be experiencing implantation bleeding.
What is Implantation Bleeding?
Implantation bleeding happens when a fertilized egg attaches itself to your uterine lining. The attachment can cause a tiny bit of your uterine lining to shed off, which shows up as brown or pink discharge. Although you might initially feel disheartened, this type of light spotting could mean you have a bun in the oven! "Roughly one-third of women will experience implantation bleeding," explains Dr. Juan Alvarez, a board-certified OB/GYN with Fertility Centers of Illinois. "It can be difficult to discern whether an early period is starting or implantation bleeding is occurring because both can happen around the same time. For women with irregular periods, this timing is more difficult to pinpoint due to irregular ovulation."
When Does Implantation Bleeding Occur?
When my husband and I were trying to get pregnant with our second child, we felt like we were constantly watching the calendar, especially when my period was due. One day I noticed a little brown discharge when I went to the bathroom. Assuming it was just a visit from Aunt Flo, I went about my business and thought nothing of it. But after a couple of days, the spotting stopped, and I ended up having a positive pregnancy test a few weeks later. While it can vary for everyone, implantation bleeding generally occurs about a week before your period should start.
How Do You Know If It's Implantation Bleeding or Your Period?
Implantation discharge can mimic menstruation, especially those first few days of your period when you have a lighter flow or if you normally experience light periods, so you might feel confused when you start spotting. "Implantation bleeding happens six to twelve days after conception (day 24 to 26 of your cycle)," explains Sherry Ross, M.D., an OB/GYN and Women's Health Expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center. "The bleeding is light or "scanty" in appearance with mild uterine cramping that typically lasts two to seven days."
Here's how to tell if you have symptoms of implantation bleeding or if it’s just your period:
Watch the flow: Bleeding from implantation is light and remains light, but a period flow starts light and gets heavier.
Check the color: Red blood that looks bright or vibrant points to menstruation, and discharge that appears light pink or brown can be a sign of implantation. So what does implantation bleeding look like? It can occasionally look red, but it more commonly looks brown or pink. Implantation bleeding also does not contain blood clots, which often appear during menstruation.
Note the regularity: How long does implantation bleeding last? Menstrual flow typically continues through the full duration of your period without stopping, but bleeding from implantation can come and go. Implantation bleeding often causes spotting or off-and-on bleeding for about one or two days. This differs from a menstrual cycle, which normally lasts between four to seven days.
Pay attention to your cramping severity: Both menstruation and implantation bleeding can cause cramping, but cramps from your period feel much more intense. Light or faint cramping that never increases in intensity could mean implantation, especially if it's coupled with brown or pink discharge.
Additional Early Signs of Pregnancy
"Whenever a woman in her childbearing years notes that she is late by at least a week, she should suspect pregnancy, especially if she has not been using birth control," says Gerardo Bustillo, M.D., an OB/GYN in practice at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley. "Even in women who faithfully use contraception, pregnancy is possible because no method is 100% effective."
If you still can't tell whether your spotting looks like implantation or menstruation, you can always take an at-home pregnancy test or schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN. She can tell you whether you should start looking for baby names or stocking up on sanitary napkins. In the meantime, watch for other early pregnancy symptoms, such as sore breasts, headaches, mood swings, sensitivity to smell and elevated basal body temperature.