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 3 weeks before and 2 weeks after this date.
False labor (Braxton Hicks contractions)
Most pregnant women feel mild contractions before true labor begins. These are called Braxton Hicks contractions, which:
Are typically short
Are not painful
Do not come at regular intervals
Are not accompanied by bleeding, leaking fluid, or decreased fetal movement
This stage is called "prodromal" or "latent" labor.
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 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 your 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: 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 after the bag of water breaks.
Even if contractions don't begin, let your doctor or midwife 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 to 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
Call your doctor or midwife right away if you have:
Leaking amniotic fluid
Decreased fetal movement
Any vaginal bleeding other than light spotting
Regular, painful contractions every 5 to 10 minutes for 60 minutes
Call for any other reason if you are unsure what to do.
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.
Cynthia D. White, MD, Fellow American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Group Health Cooperative, Bellevue, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.