As you approach 40 weeks of pregnancy, you will probably spend a lot of time wondering, “When will labor start?” It can be frustrating to wait, especially if you go past your due date.

Depending on your medical history and your past experience with loss, your provider might recommend induction. But if you are low-risk and your baby is healthy, you will likely be responsible for determining when your baby is close to arriving. You may be thinking, “How can I tell when I’m in labor?” There are a couple definite ways to know and a few other signs that indicate labor is near. Read on for an explanation of the telltale signs of labor.

pregnant woman - signs of labor


How Do I Know When I’m in Labor?

When it comes to truly being in labor, there are really two major signs: Regular contractions that do not go away with a change in position and rupture of membranes, commonly known as your water breaking. Here’s what you need to know about both scenarios.

Consistent and Strong Contractions

Some expectant parents describe the contractions that happen at the start of labor as similar to menstrual cramps. Pain from true contractions usually begins in the back and moves like a wave around to the belly. This is different from Braxton Hicks, or practice, contractions that occur only in the front.

Labor contractions typically start out mildly — you can talk and walk through them — and grow in intensity to the point of not being able to do anything except focus on getting through the discomfort. The length of contractions will also increase from about 30 seconds in the beginning up to 90 seconds during the hardest part of labor. In addition, contractions will follow a pattern and get closer together as birth approaches[1]“How to Tell When Labor Begins,” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, May 2020,

Membrane Rupture

If you are at least 37 weeks and your water breaks before labor begins, this is called prelabor rupture of members (PROM). It can feel like a gush, and you might even hear a pop. Or it can be a trickle that starts and stops. If you’re not sure whether the leaking is amniotic fluid, call your provider. Your care team can test the fluid to confirm.

After your water breaks, you may start feeling contractions right away, or it might take a little while. Most pregnant people begin to feel contractions within about 12 hours of PROM. However, it’s best to talk to your care team before labor begins about what to do in this situation. If you have risk factors, your provider might suggest induction methods to bring on contractions. Birthing facilities have various protocols when it comes to PROM, but someone with no risk factors can usually wait 24-48 hours for labor to begin on its own[2]“Evidence on: Premature Rupture of Membranes,” Rebecca Dekker PhD, RN, Evidence Based Birth, July 10, 2017,

What Are the Signs that Labor is Close?

There are some physical changes and hormonal shifts that happen in your body before labor starts. While the following symptoms do not predict when your baby will be born, they can let you know that labor is close.

Bloody Show

Despite the name, this discharge is not always bloody. It can be clear, pink, red, or brown[3]“What are the symptoms of labor?” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, October 2020, … Continue reading. Bloody show usually appears when the mucus plug begins breaking down. You might see an increase in vaginal discharge at first, followed by heavier, mucus-like clumps.

Like many aspects of pregnancy, there’s a wide range of normal here. You might not notice your mucus plug at all, or you may have obvious bloody discharge and go days before labor begins.

Cervical Effacement and Dilation

Toward the end of pregnancy, your provider may offer to check your cervix as part of your prenatal appointments[4]“Signs of Labor,” American Pregnancy Association, During this exam, the practitioner will be able to detect if your cervix has effaced or dilated. Efface means to thin, and dilate means to open.

It’s true that effacement and dilation do need to happen before your baby is born, but when this process starts does not tell you when true labor will begin. In other words, you can be three centimeters dilated for several days. You can also not be dilated at all during a morning prenatal appointment and go into labor that night.


This is when the baby drops lower into your pelvis. You might recognize more pressure as the baby’s head settles deeply. When this happens, most expectant parents notice relief from the baby pushing on the diaphragm, making them feel “lighter,” hence the term lightening.

Lightening definitely means the baby is gearing up for birth positioning, but, much like cervical changes, it’s not a good indicator of when. Lightening can happen weeks, days, or hours before birth[5]“Contractions and Signs of Labor,” March of Dimes, December 2018,

Nesting Instinct

Pregnancy can be exhausting, especially in the third trimester when a nap always sounds like a good idea. However, soon before the baby is born, you might feel a burst of energy that motivates you to clean and organize. There will likely be a sense of urgency to complete outstanding tasks, such as preparing and freezing meals for the postpartum period.

If you do experience this phenomenon, be careful not to overexert yourself. You will need energy for labor and birth — and for taking care of the new baby.


As you await the arrival of your baby born after loss, you will probably be paying attention to every sensation, wondering, “Is this labor?” This will likely still be true now — even after learning the signs of labor. The good news is, for most expectant parents, it’s pretty clear when labor is really happening.

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