How to tell if you're in labor

How to tell if you're in labor

Your due date

When you started your prenatal care, your health care provider gave you an estimated due date. This is the date your baby is expected to be full-term (40 weeks). Your due date is based on:

  • information about your last menstrual period
  • results from lab tests
  • the age of your baby based on early ultrasound results

Signs of labor

Each labor experience is different and labor can start many different ways.

  • It may start with your water breaking.
  • You may have a day-long backache that turns into contractions.
  • Your labor may start with contractions that have a pattern of lasting 45 to 60 seconds and coming every five minutes.
  • Your contractions may start 20 minutes apart and last 30 seconds.

The chart below explains some of the signs of early labor.

Possible signs What it means

Vague, nagging backache causing restlessness and a need to keep changing positions.

This is different from the backache of pregnancy; contractions may be the cause.

Several soft bowel movements, sometimes with a 'sick' feeling in your stomach.

This is probably from an increase of hormones called prostaglandins, which soften the cervix.

Cramps that feel like menstrual cramps; the discomfort may go into the thighs.

This may be caused by prostaglandins and early contractions.

Unusual burst of energy, the 'nesting' urge.

The ensures you will have the energy for labor. Avoid starting a large project.

Early signs What it means

Slippery mucus discharge from the vagina that is tinged with pink or red blood; called 'bloody show.'

This is caused by the opening of the cervix. This is different from the brownish discharge that can occur after a pelvic exam or sex.

Contractions that do not become longer, stronger and closer together (are nonprogressing).

These contractions are softening and thinning the cervix. This needs to happen before the cervix can dialate (open).

Positive signs What it means

Fluid leaking from the vagina that can't be controlled like the flow of urine, or a gush of fluid from the vagina. There may be the sound of a pop when this happens. This is called "rupture of membranes" or your "water breaking."

The amniotic sac is leaking fluid from a small tear. Contractions may start after this. Call your health care provider even if your contractions have not yet started. Only about 10 percent of labors begin this way.

Contractions that become longer, stronger and closer together over time (are progressing); felt in the abdomen, back or both.

This is a sign that the contractions are thinning and opening your cervix. It is difficult to distract yourself during these contractions.

Source: Allina Health Patient Education, Beginnings: Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond, eighth edition, ob-ah-90026
First Published: 10/04/2002
Last Reviewed: 12/06/2021