How to Know When Labor Is Near: A Complete Guide for Expecting Mothers

Giving birth is one of the most miraculous events in a woman’s life. As your due date approaches, you may be wondering: how will I know when labor is starting? Recognizing the signs of impending labor can help you feel prepared when those first contractions begin. This comprehensive guide covers everything expecting mothers need to know about the symptoms, stages, and timing of approaching labor and delivery.

Key Takeaways:

  • Look for lightening, passing of the mucus plug, and bloody show in the weeks before labor.
  • Timeable contractions, water breaking, and diarrhea are signs labor will start within hours or days.
  • Backache, nausea, and nesting instinct may indicate labor is 24-48 hours away.
  • First-time moms usually experience early labor signs 1-2 weeks before delivery.
  • Labor typically begins between 37-42 weeks gestation but can happen earlier or later.
  • Knowing the stages of labor helps gauge progress and when to head to the hospital.

The excitement and anticipation leading up to the birth of your baby is palpable. While every woman’s labor experience is unique, your body provides several clues that the big day is approaching. Paying attention to these signs of impending labor allows you to relax knowing baby’s arrival is near.

Changes Weeks Before Labor Begins

As the due date inches closer, various physical and emotional signs may indicate your body is preparing for labor. Here are changes you may notice in the last weeks of pregnancy:


Around two to four weeks before labor starts, the baby often drops lower into the pelvis in a process called lightening or engagement. This alleviates pressure under your ribs allowing you to breathe easier. However, the pressure down below may make walking more difficult. Lightening is more pronounced in first-time mothers.

Cervical Changes

In the weeks before labor, the cervix begins effacing (thinning out) and dilating (opening). This prepares the cervix for active labor when it must open to 10 cm. Your doctor monitors these changes by checking your cervix weekly or biweekly as you near your due date.

Passing the Mucus Plug

The mucus plug sealing your cervix may discharge as thick reddish or brownish mucus or blood tinged discharge. This “bloody show” indicates the cervix is dilating and effacing in preparation for labor. However, you can pass the mucus plug in small pieces over days or weeks leading up to delivery.

Increased Clumsiness

You may feel extra clumsy or off-balance as your posture, center of gravity, and joints change to accommodate your baby dropping lower in your pelvis. Take extra precaution to avoid falls near stairs or slippery surfaces.

Nesting Instinct

A surge of energy and desire to clean and organize your home often hits in the weeks before labor. Take advantage of this nesting instinct and get your environment baby-ready! But don’t overexert yourself once contractions start.

Emotional Changes

Anxiety, worry, excitement, irritability or other emotions may surface leading up to labor. Talk with your partner or friends if you need reassurance. Know that fluctuating emotions are normal as your hormones shift.

Signs Labor Will Start Soon

In the days and hours leading up to the beginning of labor, distinct signs indicate your body is getting ready for the main event. Watch for these clues that delivery is imminent:

Timeable Contractions

Practice contractions, known as Braxton-Hicks, occur in the weeks before delivery. However, irrregular contractions that become longer, stronger, and closer together are likely early labor. Time contractions to see if they are consistently 5 minutes apart.

Water Breaking

Rupture of the amniotic sac, or your “water breaking”, often signals the start of labor within hours or days. This gush or trickle of fluid should prompt a call your doctor. Most women go into labor 24 hours after their water breaks.


Having loose, frequent stools may be a sign your body is cleaning itself out in preparation for labor. Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting sometimes occur right before active labor begins.

Fatigue or Increased Nesting

Some women feel a burst of energy to finalize nursery preparations days or hours before contractions start. Others feel extremely tired as the body conserves energy for the work of labor. Rest as much as possible.

Backache and Menstrual-like Cramps

Many women experience lower back pain, abdominal cramping, or pelvic pressure as the baby engages lower in the pelvis before the onset of true labor. These aches may come and go in the days leading up to delivery.

Anxiousness or Sadness

Some women report feeling weepy, worried, jittery or slightly depressed in the hours before labor begins due to shifting hormones. Reach out for reassurance and comfort from loved ones during this time.

When to Head to the Hospital

Labor often starts subtly before building to active labor. Deciding when to make that trip to the hospital can be tricky. Here are some guidelines on when to head to your birthplace:

  • Contractions are regular, lasting 60 seconds and 4-5 minutes apart for at least an hour.
  • Amniotic sac releases or “water breaks”.
  • Bleeding increases beyond a light amount.
  • You feel the urge to push.
  • Contractions are too intense to talk through.

Call your doctor right away if your water breaks, even if you have no contractions yet. Follow your birthing plan and healthcare provider’s advice about when to come in. Being well-rested early on helps you manage pain better. Don’t wait until the last minute!

The 3 Stages of Labor

Understanding the typical progression of the 3 stages of labor helps you know what to expect as delivery nears.

Early Labor

Early labor may take hours or days, and is the longest stage. Contractions are usually mild, last 30-60 seconds, and are 5-20 minutes apart. Stay home relaxing as long as you can. Walking can help ease discomfort.

Active Labor

Active labor is when contractions intensify in strength, duration and frequency to about 60-90 seconds every 3-5 minutes. Cervical dilation accelerates to around 6 centimeters. Use your planned pain management techniques like breathing, massage or epidural.

Transition & Delivery

Transition starts around 8 centimeters dilation and lasts 15 minutes to an hour as you complete the final cervical dilation. Contractions are very strong 2-3 minutes apart. Stay focused as you begin pushing and delivering your baby!

When to Call Your Doctor

Call your healthcare provider if you notice any concerning symptoms in the weeks before or during labor including:

  • Contractions growing stronger or closer before 37 weeks
  • Vaginal bleeding not associated with the mucus plug
  • Leaking amniotic fluid or suspicion your water broke
  • Signs of preeclampsia like headaches or visual changes
  • Decreased fetal movement

Getting familiar with the typical timeline and sequence of early labor signs allows you to relax knowing events are progressing normally. While every labor is unique, your body provides clues that the big day is almost here! Trust your instincts and call your doctor with any concerns. Focus on remaining comfortable and energized in the early phases of labor so you feel ready to give birth when the time comes. The wait is almost over, and soon you’ll be cradling your precious baby!

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it feel like when labor is near?

Many women experience lightening, passing of mucus plug, abdominal cramping, backache, contractions, and emotional changes in the days or weeks before labor starts. Increased fatigue, anxiety, and nesting instinct are also common.

How will I know labor is starting if my water doesn’t break?

Most women experience contractions, lightening, cramping, or other signs labor is imminent even if the amniotic sac doesn’t rupture. Timeable contractions are one of the best indicators that early labor has begun.

How long after the first signs of labor does delivery occur?

It can take hours or days from the first symptoms until active labor contractions begin. However, most women deliver within 24 hours after the amniotic sac breaks or bloody show appears.

In Conclusion

Approaching labor can be an emotional rollercoaster. Getting familiar with the signs helps you anticipate baby’s arrival whether this is your first or fifth child. Stay in close contact with your healthcare provider, rest as much as possible, and remember to breathe. The discomfort of labor brings the joy of meeting your baby soon!