pregnant woman sitting on a bed

5 Likely Signs That Labor Is Coming Soon

By Stacey Feintuch
Reviewed by Alyssa Quimby, M.D.
August 04, 2023

When your due date is approaching, it’s common to get antsy. You may start looking for signs that labor is starting. But it can be tricky to know for sure—and false alarms are common.

Still, if you can’t stop wondering how long you have until your baby comes (and remember, every labor is different), here are five signs that labor may very well be starting.

1. You Lose the Mucus Plug

The mucus plug plays an important role in pregnancy and labor. This protective layer of mucus forms a seal to cover the opening of the cervix, protecting the baby from bacteria outside the uterus throughout pregnancy. It usually comes out before labor as the cervix opens (or dilates), and it may emerge either as a single blob or gradually over time. Losing the plug can be a sign that labor is coming soon.

“Although an increase in clear or white discharge is normal throughout pregnancy due to changes in hormone levels, increased mucuslike discharge close to your due date may signal cervical change,” says Hector O. Chapa, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn who serves as a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and the clerkship director for OB-GYN at Texas A&M College of Medicine, in Bryan, Texas.

Mucus plug discharge may be pink, clear, brown, or slightly bloody. While losing the mucus plug is a sign you don’t have too much longer, there isn’t a timing guarantee—it can happen days before labor begins or even just minutes before.

“It sometimes means labor is imminent,” says Sara Bittman, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn and medical director of the OB-GYN faculty practice at Hackensack University Medical, in New Jersey.

Call your doctor if you have more than just a little blood in your discharge—the mucus plug shouldn’t be as heavy as a menstrual period.

2. You Start Regular Contractions

Contractions happen when the muscles of your uterus expand and contract to help push the baby out. You may have experienced the occasional contraction throughout your pregnancy. Before labor, some people experience Braxton Hicks contractions, or “practice contractions,” in which the belly tightens to prepare for true labor, Chapa says.

“Contractions are fairly common even early in the third trimester,” says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn and clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, in New Haven, Connecticut. “However, if all they amount to is some tightening of the abdomen, and they don’t hurt at all, then they are highly unlikely to be amounting to anything (like changing the cervix).”

If your contractions are happening regularly and not stopping, Chapa says, they may be the real deal. He recommends timing contractions from the beginning of one to the next. If they progressively get closer together and stronger, you may be in labor. Labor contractions typically:

  • Are two to five minutes apart
  • Last 60 to 90 seconds each
  • Continue regardless of your position or activity

They may feel different from Braxton Hicks, too. According to Chapa, true labor contractions are usually felt in the front upper abdomen, lower abdomen, and even the back.

Call your doctor when contractions are consistently five minutes apart for more than one hour, Chapa says.

3. The Baby ‘Drops’ in the Uterus

Known as lightening, this drop occurs when the baby moves lower in the uterus and settles its head into the pelvis. It can occur anytime between a few weeks to a few hours before the start of labor.

You may realize it’s happened when you start to feel downward pressure in your pelvis or vagina, or experience lower back pain. The good news: You may also be able to breathe a bit easier, since the baby’s lower position helps relieve pressure on your diaphragm. The not so good news: Lightening may also push down on your bladder, Bittman says. Regardless, don’t panic, says Chapa. It’s normal and all part of the process.

“Lightening as an isolated issue is not a reliable sign of labor,” Chapa says. Still, it is a hopeful sign that things are moving in the right direction.

4. Your Water Breaks

The water “breaks” when the amniotic sac—a fluid-filled membrane that cushions a baby in the uterus—ruptures. It can be either a gush or constant trickle of small amounts of amniotic fluid. Often, your water breaks when you’re at home in bed.

“If your water breaks, and it’s clear, and the pregnancy is near term, you will usually go into labor soon,” Minkin says. “Near term” means close to your due date.

Amniotic fluid can be confused with urine—the difference is that it’s clear and odorless, so if you’re unsure, check the color and smell. If you don’t think it’s urine, call your doctor. If you have discharge or fluid that’s green or foul-smelling, you should also call your doctor, as you might have an infection.

If your water breaks before 34 weeks, your doctor will likely take steps to delay labor for as long as possible to prevent the possibility of complications related to premature birth, Chapa says. After 34 weeks, many providers will induce labor to prevent infection and deliver the baby.

5. Your Cervix Is Dilating

Dilation is a process where the cervix opens to prepare for childbirth. The width of the opening is measured in centimeters during an internal pelvic exam—it’s not something you can figure out yourself, notes Chapa. Your doctor or midwife will check for dilation during your regular visits and will let you know if you’re experiencing it. These checks usually don’t happen until about 37 weeks.

To prepare for a vaginal birth, the cervix goes from no dilation to 10 centimeters (fully dilated). Dilation happens slowly during the early stage of labor. You’ll dilate more quickly once you’re in active labor, which happens as you hit 6 centimeters of dilation, Chapa says. Exactly how long this takes can vary. Some people go from 0 to 10 centimeters in the same day, and for others it may take a few weeks to get from 1 to 6 centimeters and then beyond.

Once your cervix reaches 10 centimeters, you’ll start pushing, Chapa says, adding that this part of labor can last a few minutes, or it may take three to four hours, especially if it’s your first delivery.

When to Call the Doctor

The right time to call your doctor or medical provider is truly anytime. If anything feels wrong, or you have a question, or you’re wondering about potential signs of labor, don’t hesitate to call. Doctors expect to hear from their patients—and having your questions answered can help give you peace of mind.

“Remember to expect false alarms,” Chapa says. “And don’t be embarrassed if you go to the hospital and are turned away. Think of it as being good practice for when the real thing happens.”

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