In late pregnancy, it's easy to wonder if every symptom you're having is an early signs of labor. Are you having Braxton Hicks or "real" contractions? Is that your mucus plug or normal vaginal discharge?

While every woman's experience is different, learning the typical signs of labor can help you feel more prepared when it does happen. While in the movies women have two contractions and deliver a baby, in the real world labor is typically a longer and unmistakable process.

What is labor?

Labor is the process of delivering your baby – and the placenta – from your uterus through your vagina and into the world. Your body will go through different stages of labor during childbirth, and you'll experience a number of telltale signs of each stage. Within those stages are phases, too.

There are three stages of labor. In the first stage, contractions thin (efface) and open (dilate) your cervix. This stage has two phases, the latent phase, when your cervix is slowly dilating from 0 to 6 cm, and the active phase, when stronger contractions dilate the cervix more rapidly from 6 cm to full dilation at 10 cm.

Once you're fully dilated, the second stage starts as your baby descends into the vaginal canal and is birthed. (You'll be pushing during this stage.)  The third stage starts with your baby's birth and ends with the delivery of the placenta.

Read more about the stages of labor and delivery.

Early signs that indicate labor is near

In the final days or weeks before your due date, you may notice one or more signs that labor is near. Not all women experience all of these signs – again, this is very individual – but if you do feel like your baby has dropped lower, for example, or you have some mucousy discharge or more Braxton Hicks contractions than usual, you may be close to labor day!

Before you get excited about labor starting, remember that many of these signs and symptoms can precede labor by weeks. Rather than predicting that labor is imminent, these can just be symptoms of being pregnant near your due date.

Still, here are some of the early signs that labor may be near:

Baby has dropped

If this is your first pregnancy, you may feel what's known as lightening a few weeks before labor starts. Lightening means your baby has "dropped" and now rests lower in your pelvis.

When your baby drops, you might feel less pressure just below your ribcage, making it easier to catch your breath. If you experienced heartburn during pregnancy, it might now improve. (On the downside, you may need to pee more often because your baby's pressing on your bladder.)

If this isn't your first baby, however, lightening may not happen until labor begins.

Loss of the mucus plug

If your cervix begins to efface or dilate significantly as you get close to labor, you may pass your mucus plug – the small amount of thickened mucus that has collected within your cervical canal during your pregnancy. If you see mucus, it's likely a sign that you're dilating – but it can still be some time before labor begins.

The mucus plug may come out in a lump all at once or as an increased amount of vaginal discharge over the course of several days – or even weeks. Without the other signs of labor noted below, you don't need to call your doctor or midwife if you pass your mucus plug.

You have some "bloody show"

You may have noticed more vaginal discharge during pregnancy, thanks to your body's increased estrogen. Normal, healthy discharge is usually creamy white or clear, but it may also be tinged brown, pink, or red. Other colors – such as yellow, green, or gray – may signal an infection or other problem.

When your cervix starts to soften, you may notice pink discharge or bright red blood. This is called "bloody show." Sometimes this happens as you lose your mucus plug (the mucus may be tinged with blood) but it can also happen independently.

Having sex or a vaginal exam can also disturb your mucus plug and result in some blood-tinged discharge or bleeding, even when labor isn't necessarily starting any time soon.

Call your provider if you have bleeding heavier than a period, consistent red bleeding that's not slowing or turning brown, or bleeding in combination with abdominal pain.

Cervix has started to efface and dilate

In the days and weeks before delivery, changes in the connective tissue of your cervix make it soften and lead to dilation and effacement (when your cervix thins and opens).

If you've given birth before, your cervix is more likely to dilate a centimeter or more before labor starts. Still, that's no guarantee that labor is imminent.

When you're at or near your due date, your doctor or midwife may do a vaginal exam during a prenatal visit to see whether your cervix has started the process of effacement and dilation. Whether you have this exam is up to you. Cervical exams can be uncomfortable, and they can't predict future labor timing. But exams can be helpful for planning an upcoming induction or for estimating how much time you'll have to get to the hospital if you have a history of fast labors.

Braxton Hicks contractions

You may have experienced Braxton Hicks contractions throughout your pregnancy. If you're having a Braxton Hicks contraction, you'll feel a tightening or squeezing of your uterus, lower abdominal area, or groin. Then it will relax. Unlike true labor contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and usually not painful. 

More frequent and intense Braxton Hicks contractions can signal that real contractions are coming soon – but not always.

Signs of labor

Labor usually occurs sometime between 38 and 41 weeks. While early signs that labor may be approaching aren't at all clear or dependable, these are reliable signs that you're in real labor:


When your uterus contracts, your abdomen feels tight or hard, and you have a sensation of cramping. When the uterus relaxes between contractions, the sensation dissipates. Labor contractions will grow stronger, longer, and more frequent as they cause your cervix to dilate. True labor contractions are too painful to talk through, and they may bring tears to your eyes. Find out more about what contractions feel like according to moms.

You'll want to start timing your contractions – how far apart they are and how long they last. (Time contractions starting from the beginning of one until the beginning of the next.) Your doctor or midwife probably gave you directions about when to come in based on the timing of the contractions. If not, give them a call and ask. These videos explain more about how contractions feel and how to time contractions.

Back pain

If you're having lower back pain along with contractions, it may be a signal that you're having back labor. The pain from back labor continues between contractions, though it may get stronger during contractions.

Back pain usually means that your baby's head is pressing against your lower back, though one theory suggests that the pain may be "referred" from your uterus to your lower back.

Your water breaks

When the fluid-filled amniotic sac surrounding your baby ruptures, fluid leaks from your vagina. It may come out in a large gush or a small trickle, or anything in between. If you're not sure whether your water broke, call your doctor or midwife to discuss your symptoms.

Labor usually follows soon after your water breaks – regular contractions often start before this, but in some cases, the water breaks first.

If your water breaks when you're full term but you're not in labor (not having contractions), it's called premature rupture of membranes (PROM).

If you don't start having contractions on your own within six to 24 hours of your water breaking, your provider will most likely recommend that labor be induced. That's because your baby is more likely to get an infection without the amniotic sac's protection against germs. Most providers will offer you an immediate induction but give you the option to postpone if you want to give labor a chance to start on its own.

If you're leaking amniotic fluid before 37 weeks, it's called preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM), and it may mean your baby will be delivered prematurely due to the increased risk of infection.

Whenever your water breaks, call your doctor or midwife. (Call them even if you think your water broke but aren't sure.)

Regardless of contractions, if you're group B strep positive you'll need to start on antibiotics as soon as your water breaks to prevent an infection in your baby.

What is preterm labor?

Labor usually starts between week 37 and week 42 of pregnancy. If you start having regular contractions that cause your cervix to begin to open before you reach 37 weeks of pregnancy, you're in preterm labor. (It's also known as premature labor.)

It can be difficult to tell whether you're having preterm labor or not, because some of the symptoms (like Braxton Hicks and low back pain) may be things you've experienced throughout your pregnancy.

Still, call your doctor or midwife right away if you're having any of the following symptoms before 37 weeks:

  • More vaginal discharge than usual
  • A change in the type of discharge – if you're leaking watery fluid or your discharge becomes watery, mucus-like, or bloody (even if it's pink or just tinged with blood)
  • Any vaginal bleeding or spotting
  • Abdominal pain, menstrual-like cramping, or six or more contractions in one hour (even if they don't hurt)
  • More pressure in the pelvic area (a feeling that your baby is pushing down)
  • Low back pain, especially if it's dull or rhythmic, or you didn't previously have back pain
  • Your water breaks, either in a gush or a trickle

If you are – or might be – in preterm labor, your doctor or midwife may give you medications to help your baby's lungs mature, and to protect their brain. You may also receive medicine to stop or slow early contractions. Getting these medications early can improve outcomes for your baby, so be sure to call if you think you may be in preterm labor.

Am I in labor?

It can be hard to tell at first. But the frequency, length, intensity, and location of your contractions can help you figure out whether you're in true labor or are having Braxton Hicks contractions. How changing positions, walking, and rest affect your contractions provide more clues. Additionally, if you notice any bloody show with your contractions, they're probably true labor contractions.

This chart outlines differences between true and false labor contractions.

False labor contractions (Braxton Hicks)True labor contractions
TimingAre irregular and don't get closer together over timeHappen at regular intervals and get closer together over time
LengthVary in length and don't get longer over time (fewer than 30 seconds or up to 2 minutes each)Start to last longer with each contraction (about 30 to 70 seconds each)
IntensityAre weak and don't get stronger with time (may be weak then strong, then weak again)Grow stronger and more painful with each contraction
LocationAre felt at the front of the abdomenMay start in the back and move to the front, or radiate down into the thighs
Effect of moving or restingContractions stop when you change position, walk, or restContractions continue even when you change position, walk, or rest

No matter how well informed you are about the signs of labor, it's normal to have a false alarm. Don't be embarrassed about calling your doctor – or showing up at the hospital – because you think you're in labor when you're not.

If you're assessed at the hospital and sent home because you're not in labor yet, your care team will give you specific instructions about changes to look for in the next few days or weeks and when to call or come back.

When to go to the hospital for labor

Toward the end of your pregnancy, your doctor or midwife will most likely give you clear guidelines about when to let them know that you're having contractions, and when you should grab your hospital bag and head to the hospital or birth center.

Your instructions will depend on your individual situation – such as whether you have a high-risk pregnancy or other complications, if this is your first baby, if you're planning a cesarean delivery, and how far you live from the hospital or birth center.

If your pregnancy is uncomplicated, they'll probably have you wait to come in until you've been having contractions that last for about a minute each, occur every five minutes for about an hour, and are very uncomfortable.

If you're unsure whether it's time, go ahead and call. Doctors and midwives are used to getting calls from women for guidance about whether they're in labor.

When you call, your doctor or midwife will get some clues about your condition from the sound of your voice. They'll want to know:

  • How close together your contractions are
  • How long each one lasts
  • How strong they are (like whether you can continue talking through a contraction)
  • If you think your water has broken
  • If you're having vaginal bleeding
  • If you're feeling the baby move normally

Your provider will also take your obstetric history into account. What number baby is this for you? Did you have fast labors in the past? Have you had a c-section and are you planning to have one this pregnancy? Are you group B strep positive or negative?

Call your doctor or go to the hospital right away if:
  • You have signs of labor and have been having pregnancy complications
  • You have early signs of labor before 37 weeks
  • Your water breaks and you notice meconium in your amniotic fluid (it looks greenish or is streaked with green, brown, or yellow). This may be a sign that your baby is under stress.
  • You notice that your baby is less active.
  • You have vaginal bleeding, constant and severe abdominal pain, or a fever. These may be signs of a  problem with the placenta, such as placental abruption, or an intrauterine infection.
  • You have symptoms of preeclampsia (a very serious blood pressure disorder) such as abnormal swelling, severe or persistent headaches, vision changes, intense pain or tenderness in your upper abdomen, or difficulty breathing.

If your water breaks, call your provider. They may have you wait at home until you also have regular contractions or a certain amount of time has passed, or they may want you to head to the hospital. (If you tested positive for group B streptococcus, for example, your provider will want you to go to the hospital as soon as your water breaks so you can start taking antibiotics.)

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