The signs of labor, or the onset of childbirth, are different for everyone. However, there are common symptoms to look out for at this time.
Some women notice nothing until the moment labor starts. Others can have symptoms, such as cramps, for weeks before. Some symptoms are physical, while others are emotional.
This article will explain the common signs of labor starting, talk readers through the different stages of labor, and explore symptoms that might require medical attention.
The signs that someone is close to going into labor can include:
- Lightening: As women approach their due date, the baby will usually move lower into the mother’s pelvis. Birth professionals call this lightening.
- Increase in vaginal discharge: This might be clear, pink, or slightly red and bloody. It might happen a few days before the baby comes, or at the very start of the labor process.
- Nesting: Some women might experience “nesting,” which means a flurry of energy and a desire to cook or clean.
- Changes to the cervix: The cervix is the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina. Women will not tend to notice, but a healthcare provider might mention it at a prenatal checkup. The cervix is usually between 3.5 centimeters (cm) and 4 cm long. As the body prepares for labor, the cervix gets shorter, softer, and begins to open. Once someone is in labor, the cervix opens, or dilates, to around 10 cm.
Braxton-Hicks or false labor contractions are common but not necessarily a sign of imminent labor.
Women sometimes experience Braxton-Hicks in the weeks or months before they give birth.
Unlike true labor contractions, Braxton-Hicks do not come at regular intervals and do not get closer together. They are usually mild but can be painful.
Many women will find these false contractions go away if they walk around or change position.
Signs that labor is starting include the following:
When a person goes into labor, they will start to have regular contractions.
Contractions mean the muscles in the uterus, or womb, contract and then relax. This helps the cervix open and helps push the baby out.
At the start of true labor, contractions usually last from 30–90 seconds and happen at regular intervals of between 5–10 minutes.
As labor progresses or becomes more active, contractions can come every 2–3 minutes and last up to 90 seconds.
The stronger the contractions are, and the shorter the time between them, the closer someone is to giving birth.
Women are not usually able to talk or walk around during true labor contractions.
Belly and lower back pain
Pain resembling period cramps, or lower back pain, are common signs of labor. This pain does not go away even when the woman changes position or moves around.
This sign of labor beginning is a brown or red discharge from the vagina. Sometimes healthcare providers call it the mucus plug.
When the baby is ready to come out, the sack of amniotic fluid it has been growing in breaks. This fluid will then leak through the cervix and out of the vagina.
Some women experience a rush of waters, while others feel a trickle. This happens most often once someone is in full active labor.
According to the women’s health organization March of Dimes, there are three stages of labor, all with different symptoms:
Early labor tends to last 6–12 hours. Women tend to have mild, 30- to 90-second contractions every 5 to 15 minutes. They will usually have a bloody show during this stage.
Active labor is when a person will typically head to the hospital or birth center or call their midwife if planning a home birth. This stage of labor starts when the contractions are around 3 minutes apart, and the cervix has dilated to 6 cm. It usually lasts 4–8 hours.
Women may have leg cramps, pressure in the lower back, the urge to push, and they may also feel sick.
The waters may break in early or active labor.
Pushing and birth
The pushing and birth stage of labor can last anything between 20 minutes and a few hours. It may be longer for women having their first baby or those who have had an epidural or other pain medication.
Contractions at this stage tend to happen every 2–5 minutes and last 60–90 seconds.
As the woman pushes, the healthcare team can help guide the baby out of the body.
Once the baby is born, either the healthcare provider or a parent will cut the umbilical cord. For the optimal health of the baby, it is best not to cut the cord until it has stopped pulsing, usually around 5 minutes after the birth.
Delivery of the placenta
The placenta is the organ that supplies the fetus with food and oxygen while it grows in the womb. The woman now needs to push it out of her body. This usually takes a single push and happens less than 20 minutes after the baby is born.
Everyone experiences labor differently, but some things are unusual:
A woman may experience preterm labor if they have true labor contractions, their waters break, or the mucus plug expels before the 37th week of pregnancy.
Anyone who experiences any of the symptoms of labor too early should call a doctor straight away.
The bloody show vaginal discharge will usually be pink, red, or slightly bloody. If a woman is bleeding heavily, she should call her care team straightaway.
Labor that does not progress
Sometimes, women find that their true labor contractions get weaker, not stronger, over time.
Other complications that can stop the labor progressing include the cervix not dilating enough, or the fetus not moving into the birth canal properly.
If doctors or midwives think the labor is not progressing as it should, they might prescribe drugs to increase the contractions. Alternatively, they may recommend a cesarean delivery, meaning that they remove the baby from the uterus surgically.
Waters breaking early
Typically, labor will start within 24 hours of the waters breaking. If this does not happen, the women’s healthcare team will usually recommend trying to induce labor. This means that they use medication or a device to stimulate the contractions.
Any woman with concerns about their labor symptoms should speak to their healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Giving birth is different for everyone. Some women have symptoms in the weeks leading up to delivering the baby, whereas others have none.
The main signs that labor is about to start are strong, regular contractions, and a red, pink, or bloody discharge from the vagina.
Anyone who thinks they have gone into labor before week 37 of their pregnancy, has heavy bleeding, or does not go into labor within 24 hours of their waters breaking should contact a doctor or midwife immediately.