There’s no way to predict exactly when labor will start. And even when you notice early signs of labor, your baby’s birth could still be days or weeks away.
Your body actually starts preparing for labor as much as a month before you give birth, so you may begin to notice new symptoms as your due date approaches.
Here are some early signs of labor:
- Your baby “drops.”If this is your first pregnancy, you may feel what’s known as “lightening” a few weeks before labor starts, meaning the baby now rests lower in your pelvis. You might feel less pressure just below your ribcage, making it easier to catch your breath.
- You have more Braxton Hicks contractions.More frequent and intense Braxton Hicks contractions can signal pre-labor, which is when your cervix starts to thin and widen, and sets the stage for true labor. Some women experience menstrual-like cramps during this time.
- Your cervix starts to change.In the days and weeks before delivery, changes in the connective tissue of your cervix make it soften and eventually thin and widen, or dilate. (If you’ve given birth before, your cervix is more likely to dilate a centimeter or two before labor starts, but keep in mind that even being 40 weeks pregnant with your first baby and 1 centimeter dilated is no guarantee that labor is imminent.) When you’re at or near your due date, your doctor or midwife may do a vaginal exam during your prenatal visit to see whether your cervix has started to change.
- You pass your mucus plug or notice “bloody show.”If your cervix begins to efface significantly or dilate as you get close to labor, you may pass your mucus plug – the small amount of thickened mucus that has sealed off your cervical canal for the last nine months. The plug may come out in a lump all at one time or as an increased amount of vaginal discharge over the course of several days. The mucus may be tinged with brown, pink, or red blood, which is why it’s called “bloody show.” (Having sex or a vaginal exam can also disturb your mucus plug and result in some blood-tinged discharge, even when labor isn’t necessarily starting any time soon.)
Signs that labor is imminent, if not already under way, include:
- Your contractions become increasingly intense.Unlike Braxton-Hicks contractions, labor contractions grow stronger, longer, and more frequent as they cause your cervix to dilate.
- Your water breaks.When the fluid-filled amniotic sac surrounding your baby ruptures, fluid leaks from your vagina. And whether it comes out in a large gush or a small trickle, this is a signal that it’s time to call your doctor or midwife.
Most women start having regular contractions before their water breaks, but in some cases, the water breaks first. When this happens, labor usually follows soon after.