9 Signs That Labor Is Approaching

Anxiously awaiting your baby’s arrival? Learn to recognize the signs of approaching labor, which signal that your little one might make an appearance soon.

pregnant woman with back pain sitting on bed
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Even parents who've been through it before can't always tell when labor is approaching. That's because many of the early signs of labor are vague and easily misinterpreted: Do those dull cramps signal that your baby is moving into position, or are they a result of the grande burrito you ate last night? Is that little trickle of fluid your water breaking, or is it just urine leaking because a 7-pound baby is resting on your full bladder? To help you figure out when you're really nearing your delivery date, learn about the cues that may signal the first signs of labor.

Signs That Labor Is Weeks or Days Away

Just when you think that you can't possibly be pregnant any longer, you may experience some of the following signs that labor is near. These symptoms don't necessarily occur in any particular order, and some people will experience only a few rather than all. You may experience several within the same day or a few days of each other—and some may come and go before you even recognize them as a sign.

You can breathe a bit easier

As you approach delivery, your baby descends lower into the birth canal, a process called "engagement." With this move, the weight of your baby is no longer pressing on your diaphragm, and you may be able to breathe more freely as a result. The tradeoff? The potential for more pelvic pressure.

You notice an increase in discharge

Many people experience an increase in vaginal discharge (leukorrhea) throughout pregnancy, and sometimes the amount of this discharge increases in the weeks and days leading up to labor as the vagina prepares for the baby to pass through the birth canal. Leukorrhea plays a vital role in the vagina's ability to self-clean.

As you approach delivery, the cervix will also soften, thin, and dilate—and this process actually begins before labor officially starts. As the cervix begins to open, you may also notice an increase in vaginal discharge that may appear brownish or pinkish in color.

If you have an internal vaginal exam by a doctor or midwife, they may also inform you of any softening, thinning, or dilation of your cervix, which is another sign that your body is preparing for labor and delivery.

Your weight gain slows

Near the very end of your pregnancy, your weight gain may slow. This may be due to the baby reaching their full-term size. Not everyone will experience a decrease in weight gain, however, and some pregnant people may experience more swelling near the end of pregnancy.

You need to visit the bathroom more often

If you're finding yourself taking a few more trips to the bathroom with loose and frequent bowel movements, there may be a perfectly good explanation. "That's the body's way of emptying the bowels so the uterus will contract well," explains Rochel Lieberman, a certified midwife in Brooklyn, New York. "Indigestion and vomiting prior to labor are also possible."

You have the sudden urge to organize everything

If you get a sudden burst of restlessness or increased energy, you may be nesting. It's a natural phenomenon that many pregnant mammals experience in preparation for welcoming a baby. If you do feel a spike in the nesting instinct, use it wisely and don't do anything too extreme. "Don't knock yourself out," advises Barbara Moran, Ph.D., CNM, a nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwife in Dunn Loring, Virginia. "You'll need your energy for labor."

You feel some cramping or contractions

You may notice an increase in mild cramps or Braxton Hicks contractions ("practice" contractions) that feel like a tightening or hardening of the uterus as you approach delivery. Additionally, you may notice a sensation of building pressure or cramping in your pelvic/rectal area.

Signs You're Going Into Labor Soon

While the above signs are a good indication your body is getting ready for birth, if you experience any of these symptoms, labor will probably begin sooner rather than later.

Your water breaks

When it comes to how people visualize the experience of their water breaking, Hollywood certainly has left its mark. The sudden, dramatic gush of amniotic fluid immediately followed by the onset of regular intense contractions has become the default visual.

In reality, not everyone's amniotic sac will break before they start having regular contractions. In fact, for many people, labor is well underway before their water breaks. Additionally, there is some variability in what the experience looks and feels like. Sometimes it is like the big dramatic gush you see in the movies, but other times, it's more of a small leak.

If your sac does rupture on its own, however, it usually means that labor is just around the corner, if not already underway, says Carol J. Grabowski, M.D., chief of staff of the women's division at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California. Around 90% of pregnant people who are full-term (37 weeks or more pregnant) spontaneously go into labor within 24 hours after their water breaks. Those who don't are likely to be induced because the risk of infection increases once the amniotic sac has ruptured. If you're concerned your water may have broken, be sure to call your doctor or midwife so they can guide you on the next steps.

You notice a mucusy discharge or "bloody show"

During pregnancy, the cervix stays closed and plugged up with mucus (aptly called the "mucus plug"). It's your body's way of protecting your baby from infection. But as you progress toward labor, the cervix begins to soften, dilate (open), and thin (efface) in preparation for delivery, causing the plug to dislodge. The mucus, which can measure up to 1-2 teaspoons and be as big as 2 inches, is dispelled as either a blob or a runny smear.

The discharge may look brown (from old blood) or pink as the cervix continues to thin and open, which causes tiny blood vessels to break along the surface of the cervix and tinge the mucus. After you notice the "bloody show," labor could be hours, days, or even weeks away, Dr. Grabowski says.

While losing your mucus plug can be a helpful indication that labor is approaching, just keep in mind that not all people notice it because it can be dislodged in small amounts over time. If you do notice the mucus plug, or even remnants of it, it may be a sign that delivery is as close as days away.

Your back really hurts

If you're like a lot of pregnant people, your back may ache throughout your pregnancy. But if the ache becomes especially painful or it's localized in your low back, it can be a sign that you're experiencing "back labor," which most commonly happens when the baby is head down but facing forward (sometimes described as "back-to-back"). Up to 32 percent of babies are in this position at the start of labor, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

"Normally, a baby descends the birth canal with its face pressed against your spine," notes Kay Johnson, CNM, a certified nurse midwife in Atlanta. "But in some cases, the baby descends with its skull hitting the spine." The result? "Constant pain that may radiate to the abdomen but is mostly concentrated in the back."

Some pregnant people will also experience contractions that feel like back pain or have radiating pain to or from their back during contractions. But either way, whether you are experiencing back labor or not, acute back pain can be a sign that labor is approaching.

The Bottom Line

Experiencing signs that labor is approaching can be exciting and anxiety-inducing. If you're experiencing any signs of labor and you're fewer than 37 weeks pregnant, be sure to call your doctor or midwife right away as they could be a sign of preterm labor.

No matter how far into your pregnancy you are, if you're ever unsure whether your symptoms indicate that you're nearing or going into labor, don't be afraid to call your health care provider—guiding you through this process is what they are there for, and your medical team would much rather that you check in and get checked out anytime you have a concern.

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