As you approach the end of your pregnancy, your excitement is probably reaching its peak. And it’s easy to wonder if every unusual sensation in your body is a sign that the big day is right around the corner.

The signs and symptoms of labor are unique for just about every mom-to-be. But as you get closer to welcoming your little one, it helps to be prepared and know what physical symptoms to expect and when.

Below, we’ll go over some symptoms that labor is coming soon but hasn’t started yet. And we’ll provide some tell-tale signs that it’s time to grab your bags – because labor is about to begin.

Signs that labor is coming soon but hasn’t started yet

A normal pregnancy lasts about 37 to 42 weeks from the date of your last period, so once you enter the later 30s, your body is starting to gear up for the main event. The following changes don’t necessarily mean it’s time to go to the hospital, but they are signs that the big day is approaching:

Dilation and other cervical changes

Some of the biggest changes your body goes through before labor may be identified during cervical exams. As you get closer to labor, your cervix can start to soften and efface (get thinner). These changes allow your cervix to then dilate (open and grow wider), which will be necessary to deliver your baby.

Starting around week 36, your doctor or midwife may check for changes to your cervix and the position of your baby. It’s important to remember that these changes progress differently for everyone. Progress might start slowly and then increase rapidly just before labor, or vice versa.

It’s also normal to begin labor and not have a lot of changes yet. Once labor truly begins, your cervix will continue to dilate until you reach 10 centimeters and are considered fully dilated. Full dilation is what’s needed to start delivery.

Braxton Hicks contractions

Braxton Hicks are mild contractions that happen irregularly and become more common in your third trimester. You might experience Braxton Hicks contractions well before other signs of approaching labor show up. They tend to become stronger and more frequent as you get closer to your due date. But is this cramping a sign of labor? Not in the same way that regular contractions are (we’ll get to that below). And not everyone notices Braxton Hicks contractions.

Aches, pains and looser joints

Throughout your pregnancy, the hormone relaxin will loosen the ligaments in your body, particularly those in your pelvis. This will help your body stretch and flex during delivery, but you may feel discomfort or pain in your pelvic area. As your due day approaches, it’s also common to feel a bit wobbly, particularly in your hips and lower back. This is because the muscles around your joints now need to work harder to keep those areas stable.

Stomach issues

Stomach trouble isn’t out of the ordinary at any point during pregnancy. But it could intensify late in your third trimester, leading you to wonder, “Is nausea a sign that labor is approaching?” The answer is, sort of. Your baby is still growing and competing for space with everything else in your abdomen. As a result, you may experience indigestion and heartburn. But these issues can be with you for weeks or months.

However, a bout of diarrhea at the end of pregnancy can often be a sign that labor is 24 to 48 hours away. But those numbers can vary.

Lightening

As mentioned above, one of the things that doctors may check for during cervical exams is the position of the baby. This is in part because as you get closer to your due date, your baby will most likely settle into your pelvic area, which is referred to as the baby “dropping” or lightening.

Lightening often takes place two to four weeks before labor for first-time mothers. Mothers who have given birth before may not experience lightening until much closer to labor.

Your baby’s new position may put added pressure on your pelvis and bladder. So you may be used to frequent urination as a pregnancy symptom, but even more frequent urination is a potential sign of labor to come.

However, lightening sometimes makes it feel easier to breathe. And it could also reduce heartburn thanks to less pressure on the stomach and organs.

Nesting instincts

Many mothers-to-be experience a burst of energy in the weeks before they deliver and an urge to get things done along with it. The science isn’t clear on why, but there are theories that it could be instinct or the result of peaking estrogen.

Whatever their cause, these “nesting instincts” may take the form of planning for labor, organizing or cleaning house, and doing other activities that help prepare for the baby’s arrival. If you experience this, just be sure not to spend all your energy on it. You’re going to want as much energy as possible going into labor.

Questions or concerns about labor signs? Our 24/7 BabyLine is free for our members and patients.

The first signs that labor may be starting

While signs that labor is approaching can vary a lot from person to person, some of the signs that labor is actually beginning tend to be more universal.

You start to experience real contractions

Uterine contractions are your body’s way of getting your baby into position so you can push the baby out. The start of labor is generally defined as when you start experiencing true contractions.

What do contractions feel like?

Early labor contractions are mild and irregular, lasting for hours or days. But as you progress towards active labor, true contractions become more intense. They’re often compared to menstrual cramps or the severe gut pain that might be related to gas or an intestinal issue.

One of the main ways to tell true contractions apart from Braxton Hicks contractions is that normal contractions happen at regular intervals that become more frequent over time. You can track your contraction intervals either by using an app or phone, or by using a stopwatch and charting the start time and duration of each contraction on a piece of paper.

False labor vs. real labor

These key differences can help you tell when to go to the hospital for contractions.

True labor False labor
Contractions happen at regular intervals Contractions happen irregularly
Contraction intensity increases Contraction intensity is relatively consistent
The time between contractions shortens The time between contractions doesn’t shorten
Discomfort remains regardless of position or movement Changing position or moving around often relieves discomfort

You feel consistent pain in your belly and lower back

Once contractions have truly begun, you’ll feel pain in your abdomen as a result. In addition, your baby’s head may put pressure on your lower back. So is this back pain a sign of labor? It can be. When labor is starting, pain can move in waves from your back to your front.

You lose your mucus plug and experience “bloody show”

What does losing your mucus plug mean? The mucus plug is a protective accumulation of mucus in the opening of the cervix, and as your cervix dilates, this “plug” may be passed into the vagina and discharged before labor starts.

Vaginal discharge containing this mucus may be thicker and have a pink or red color to it. This is due to bleeding from the cervix as it changes. When mucus and blood are discharged together, it’s referred to as “bloody show.” It’s worth noting that the mucus plug is often lost in the days leading up to labor, but it can also happen earlier or later depending on when you actually start to dilate and efface.

Your water breaks

During pregnancy, your baby is surrounded by amniotic fluid, which helps protect them from bacteria. Around the beginning of labor, the sac containing this fluid often ruptures. This can take the form of a sudden gush or a slow trickle of fluid from your vagina, but it isn’t always obvious. So if you suspect that your water may have broken, call your care team or head to the hospital. It may take contractions or your baby applying pressure before your water breaks.

What to watch for: Signs of preterm labor

Labor is considered preterm if it starts three or more weeks before your due date. If you haven’t reached week 37 and you believe that you may be experiencing signs that labor is starting, call your care team immediately.

What to do if you suspect that you’re in labor

The most common signs that it’s time to go to the hospital are water breaking or regular contractions that are five minutes apart for at least an hour (if it’s your first baby). If you live farther away from the hospital or this is not your first baby, your doctor or care team may give you other instructions.

Labor is yours alone. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to go to the hospital early if you have any concerns. And in the meantime, if you have any planning left to do, we’re here to help.