Water breaking? Contractions? Those are both sure signs of labor, but sometimes, the signs labor is approaching are more subtle. A woman's body almost always gives her the signals she needs and the inner wisdom to recognize them; however, to help you understand them, we’ve compiled a list of the most common signs of labor. Labor prepares your body for the delivery of your baby, and it can start off slowly. Read on to find out when you can expect to go into labor; the differences between real and false labor; and the differences between early and active labor.

When Will I Go Into Labor?

Although your due date is usually set to 40 weeks, when your pregnancy is full term, don’t expect your baby to arrive on the dot.

To start with, your due date may not be accurate ¾ it's just an estimate, and could be off by as much as two weeks, even if the date was adjusted after an ultrasound. It’s common for most women to go into labor between 38 and 42 weeks.

Just make sure you keep an eye out for the signs of labor below and have your birth plan ready. If you haven’t made a birth plan yet, you can create one easily with our downloadable birth plan template and using our guide on what to include in your birth plan.

If your due date has come and gone, you may be anxious for labor to begin. You might have heard old wives’ tales like castor oil working to induce labor. Experts don’t recommend trying this kind of home remedy. Instead, the best thing to do is to chat with your healthcare provider, if you’re concerned labor hasn’t started yet.

D Birth Plan

What Are the Signs of Labor Approaching?

It's very unlikely that you will suddenly go into labor without warning. Your body will let you know that you're close to the big day, so you can make sure your hospital bag is packed, and be ready to go to the hospital when the time is right.

Although every woman is different, you may notice some of these signs that indicate that labor might start in the next few days:

  • A change in energy levels. If you're feeling extra tired or experiencing a sudden surge of energy in the days or weeks before labor, this is perfectly normal. You might also have the urge to "nest" and prepare your home for the baby. Although nesting can begin any time during your pregnancy, many women experience it just before labor. Don't overexert yourself. Just rest, and save your energy.

  • Lightening. Your baby drops lower into your pelvis in the weeks, days, or hours before labor. This is called lightening, because you may find breathing a little easier.

  • Bloody show. You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked discharge called a bloody show. This is the mucus plug that sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It often appears several days before labor begins, although it's not always noticeable.

What Are the Early Signs of Labor?

Although every pregnancy is different, and there is no definite set of events, you may experience some early signs of labor. Some of these can be very subtle, and you may not even notice them. Contractions are the most common first sign of labor.

Just before you go into labor, your cervix, the lower part of your uterus, will soften, thin out, and shorten. You may feel a little discomfort, maybe even a few light, irregular contractions. Your cervix will also start to dilate (open), which can happen slowly at first but will progress more quickly as you approach active labor. You may get a few, more regular contractions coming every 5 to 15 minutes, lasting 60 to 90 seconds. Do your best to keep calm and to monitor the length, frequency, and regularity of your contractions.

Early labor, which is the first part of what's called Stage 1 labor, can be an unpredictable in terms of duration. It may be hours or even days before you progress to active labor, the second part of Stage 1 labor, especially if this is your first baby. This time will usually get shorter with subsequent deliveries. Until your contractions get more regular and become more intense, or your water breaks, just stay relaxed.

However, call your doctor or midwife if you notice bright red bleeding (not pale pink or dark brown), if your water breaks (especially if the fluid is green or brown or has a foul odor), if your baby is less active, or you have a headache, vision problems, or sudden swelling. Also call your doctor if you think you are in preterm labor, which is when you go into labor before the baby is ready to be born.

What Do I Need to Do When in Early Labor?

If you experience only a few signs of labor approaching, you may not need to go to the hospital just yet. Labor can take a lot of time, and you’ll be more comfortable, and perfectly safe, staying at home. Your doctor or midwife will give you guidance based on your labor signs and your individual situation.

Realizing you're in labor can bring feelings ranging from excitement to disbelief or apprehension. Try to stay calm and focused. Arrange to have your partner or friend with you to help record labor symptoms, keep you company, and get you to the hospital when the time comes.

You can also try to ease any discomfort by:

  • getting up and going for a walk

  • trying some relaxation or breathing techniques you learned in your prenatal class

  • changing positions

  • taking a shower or a bath.

Call your doctor or midwife, whether it’s day or night, if you notice your contractions coming in stronger and more frequently, if your water breaks, if you’re unsure whether you’re in labor yet, or if you’re worried about anything.

If you come to the hospital before you’re in active labor, there is a good chance we’ll send you back home.

Tiffany Montgomery, labor and delivery nurse

You can learn more about when to go to hospital for labor and what happens when labor starts from nurses in our video guides.

What Are the Signs of Active Labor?

Active labor is when things start to really happen. Inside your body, your cervix should be dilating from 6 to 10 centimeters, and you will notice stronger signs that labor is here, including:

  • Water breaking. Shortly before delivery (but sometimes only during active labor), the amniotic sac ruptures and releases the fluid inside. This is commonly called the water breaking. You could experience a gush of water or just a trickle. If your water breaks, notify your doctor or midwife. Most women go into labor within 24 hours of their water breaking.

  • Strong and regular contractions. You may have had occasional contractions in the last few months, but as you enter active labor, your contractions should feel stronger, closer together, and get more regular. Each contraction will last about 30 to 70 seconds, and their strength will increase steadily. Timing your contractions can help you keep track of your progress.

  • Cramp in your legs. You may feel your legs cramp when you go into active labor.

  • Back pain or pressure. You could experience backache or a heavy, achy feeling as the pressure on your back increases.

  • Nausea. Some women feel nauseated as active labor begins.

Active labor can last from four to eight hours, sometimes even more. Most women will dilate at the rate of one centimeter per hour. Once your water breaks or your contractions start getting regular and stronger together, it's time to go to the hospital or birthing center, and your healthcare team will guide you through the rest.

How Can I Tell Real and False Labor Signs Apart?

If you’re having your first baby, you may think you’re going into labor when it’s really just a false alarm, and it’s too early to head to the hospital. Use the table below to help distinguish between true labor and false labor.

True Labor False Labor
Contractions are regular and follow a predictable pattern (such as every eight minutes). Contractions are irregular and unpredictable, occurring, for example, in intervals of ten minutes, then six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc.
You experience three types of progression: contractions become more frequent, longer lasting, and stronger. No progression is seen over time in the closeness of the contraction intervals, length, or strength of the contractions.
Each contraction is felt starting at the lower back, radiating around to the front, low in the groin. Contractions are felt in the front.
A change in activity or position will not slow or stop contractions. A change in activity or position may cause contractions to slow or stop.
Your doctor or midwife will notice your cervix softening, thinning, or dilating. No cervical changes occur.

However, if you have any doubts about whether you’re in labor or not, call your healthcare provider for advice.

You’ll have calculated your due date, but babies can arrive a little early. So, in the third trimester, get your hospital bag packed, stock up on diapers, download the Pampers Rewards app, and get some labor tips. Knowing you are prepared will help reduce anxiety when you notice those early signs of labor. You’re nearing the end of your pregnancy, and you’re about to bring your baby into the world. You can do this!