April 25, 2024/Pregnancy & Childbirth

10 Signs Labor May Be Beginning

Everyone’s unique, and there’s no exact checklist of symptoms, but you may feel contractions, cramps and pelvic pressure

Pregnant woman sitting on couch at home holding her stomach and back, wincing in discomfort

When you’re close to your baby’s due date, each day that passes can feel like 100. Time becomes relentless — just like calls from well-meaning loved ones asking if you’re still pregnant. You need a sign (anything!) to signal that labor is near. But do signs of labor that are 24 to 48 hours away exist?


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“There are no real rules with labor,” says Ob/Gyn Jonathan Emery, MD. “It’s completely variable. If you take 10 people, you’re going to get 10 different stories about what it was like for them before they went into labor — even between pregnancies.”

But Dr. Emery says there are some early signs of labor that may just happen to you, such as:

  • Contractions.
  • Cramps.
  • Pelvic pressure.
  • Loss of your mucus plug.
  • Changes in your vaginal discharge.

So, what exactly are you looking and feeling for? Dr. Emery breaks it all down for us.

Early signs of labor

Signs that labor is imminent can be a bit of a moving target. There isn’t a right way when it comes to childbirth. Signs of labor can vary — there’s no step-by-step list of how it all goes down, and the only thing you can count on is that your experience will be unique to you.

Early labor can last from six to 12 hours — and one of the most common signs of early labor is the start of contractions. Dr. Emery outlines what you may feel during this phase of early labor.


When you think of labor, you probably think of contractions. And in most cases, you may start to feel contractions during early labor.

While you’re in the early labor phase, your contractions typically only last about a minute and are anywhere from five to 15 minutes apart.


“The frequency and intensity of contractions determines labor,” says Dr. Emery. “But there are some physical symptoms that happen during that time.”


You may feel the type of cramps that usually happen with menstruation.

“These cramps are different from Braxton Hicks, which are usually painless false contractions that happen when the uterus tightens,” explains Dr. Emery. “These period-like cramps may be the beginning of mild contractions. They’re not too painful, but they’re noticeable. They may come and go over hours or even a couple of days.”

Pelvic pressure

You may start to feel pressure in your vagina or pelvis.

“This may be due to ‘lightening,’ which is when the baby drops down from the abdomen. You may even feel lightening as pelvic pressure or even low back pain,” shares Dr. Emery. “But keep in mind that some people don’t experience this drop until they’re in actual labor.”

Loss of your mucus plug

Some people notice a change in their vaginal discharge, which may signal the passing of their mucus plug. The mucus plug is an accumulation of mucus that forms a seal over your cervix’s opening. It helps protect the fetus from unhealthy bacteria outside of the uterus. As the cervix starts opening in preparation for labor, you may lose the mucus plug (also called bloody show) in one blob or gradually.

“Decades ago, people used to think that if you passed your mucus plug, it meant that you would be in labor in a certain number of days,” notes Dr. Emery. “But now we know that it can be nonspecific. You can lose the mucus plug, not go into labor, and the mucus can even re-accumulate in the cervix.”

Changes in your vaginal discharge

Even if the mucus plug stays intact, you may notice other changes to your vaginal discharge.

“It can become more watery, stickier and thicker, or maybe a little pink before labor begins or at the early stages of labor,” says Dr. Emery.

Other signs labor could be near

Dr. Emery says that while there are other potential signs of labor, they have less real science to back them up. These signs of labor include:

  • Fatigue. Common at the end of pregnancy due to the physical requirements.
  • Lightning crotch pain. Sharp, burning or shooting nerve pain in your pelvis caused by your baby’s position.
  • Loose stools or diarrhea. Some of the hormones and medications that start labor can also stimulate your bowels.
  • Nausea. Can be due to the pain associated with contractions or due to your baby descending into your pelvis.
  • Sudden burst of energy. Dr. Emery says this is often associated with nesting, or the strong desire to get your home ready for baby.

“One or more of these signs of laboring might happen for some people, but there’s no clear evidence that they’re related to pre-labor or early labor,” clarifies Dr. Emery.

Signs of active labor

While the early signs of labor may happen at home — and may happen over the course of several hours — you want to be in the hospital when you start active labor. This phase of labor can last between four and eight hours.

Signs of active labor include:

  • Your contractions are stronger and more consistent, about three minutes apart.
  • Your baby begins moving into your birth canal.
  • You may feel the urge to push.
  • You might experience pain, cramping or pressure in your lower back or legs.
  • Your water may break during active labor (this is when the amniotic sac around your baby ruptures).

“Labor can progress quickly and so recognizing active labor means it’s time to think about heading to the hospital,” emphasizes Dr. Emery. “The active stage of labor is marked by an increase in the rate of dilation or cervical opening. For some, the cervix can dilate to 10 centimeters over one to two hours in active labor.”


What to do if you’re in labor

If you think you’re having signs of labor starting, Dr. Emery says you should time your contractions. When they’re happening every five minutes and are so strong that you can’t walk or talk, it’s time to call your prenatal provider.

If you’re experiencing any of the following, you should seek medical care right away:

  • Chest pain.
  • Dizziness or fainting.
  • Severe nausea and vomiting.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Swelling in your face, legs or arms.
  • Heavy bleeding.
  • Significant decrease in your baby’s movements.

And even if your water breaks, but you don’t have contractions, you should still call your doctor.


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