If you've never given birth before, you may think you'll just know when the time comes. In reality, it isn’t always easy to know when you’re going into labor. The steps leading up to labor can drag on for days.
Keep in mind that your due date is just a general idea of when your labor may start. Normal term labor can start any time between 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after this date.
False Labor or Braxton Hicks Contractions
Most pregnant women feel mild contractions before true labor begins. These are called Braxton Hicks contractions, or “false” labor. Unlike true labor, false labor won’t cause the cervix to dilate, or open.
False labor, contractions:
May be irregular -- they may be short or long, strong, or weak. They may come and go and follow no pattern.
May not feel stronger or more intense over time
May not radiate (reach out) to your upper belly or your back
May lessen, stop, or change in some other way if you rest or change positions
If you are having false labor, take a warm bath and drink plenty of fluids to ease your discomfort.
As you near the end of your pregnancy, you may have false labor.
It can happen a month before or a day before you give birth.
The closer you get to your due date, the harder it can be to tell false labor from true labor.
Your doctor or midwife will be able to tell if you are in labor by checking your cervix to see if it has thinned and dilated.
Other Signs That Labor Is Near
Lightening: This happens when your baby's head "drops" down into your pelvis.
Your belly will look lower. It will be easier for you to breathe because the baby is not putting pressure on your lungs.
You may need to urinate (pass water) more often because the baby is pressing on your bladder.
For first-time mothers, lightening often happens a few weeks before birth. For women who have had babies before, it may not happen until labor has begun.
Bloody show: If you have bloody or brownish discharge from your vagina, it may mean your cervix has begun to dilate. The mucous plug that sealed the cervix for the last 9 months may be visible. This is a good sign, but active labor may still be days away.
Your baby moves less: Women often notice that their baby is less active the day before labor begins.
No one is sure why. It may be that the baby is saving up energy for the birth.
If you feel less movement, call your doctor or midwife, as sometimes decreased movement can mean that the baby is in trouble.
Your water breaks: When the amniotic sac (bag of fluid around the baby) breaks, you will feel fluid leak from your vagina. It may come out in a trickle or a gush.
For most women, contractions come within 24 hours of the bag of water breaking.
Even if contractions don't begin, let your doctor know as soon as you think your water has broken.
Diarrhea: Some women have the urge to go to the bathroom often to empty their bowels. If this happens and your stools are looser than normal, you may be going into labor.
Nesting: There's no science behind the theory, but plenty of women feel the sudden urge to "nest" right before labor starts. If you feel the need to vacuum the entire house at 3 a.m., or finish your work in the baby’s nursery, you may be getting ready for labor.
In real labor, your contractions will:
Come regularly and get closer together
Last from 30 - 70 seconds, and will get longer
Not stop, no matter what you do
Radiate (reach) into your lower back and upper belly
Get stronger or become more intense as time goes on
Make you unable to talk to other people or laugh at a joke
When to Call the Doctor or Midwife
You feel pressure in your pelvis that gets stronger or more intense.
You see bleeding or a heavy discharge from your vagina.
You notice a big change in your baby's movement.
Your “water breaks.”
Your doctor or midwife can talk you through these changes and decide if you need to come in for an exam. You may be asked:
When regular contractions began and how far apart they are
How strong or painful the contractions are
In general, women in labor should go to the hospital when their contractions:
Are too painful to talk through
Last 60 seconds or more
Have been coming 5 minutes apart for at least an hour
If you have questions or are not sure what you should do, talk with your doctor.
Kipatrick S, Garrison E. Normal labor and delivery. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2012:chap 13.
Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.