Anxiously awaiting your baby’s arrival? Learn to recognize the signs of approaching labor, which signal that your little one might make an appearance soon.
pregnant woman with back pain sitting on bed
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Even parents who've been through it before can't always tell when labor is approaching. That's because many of the early signs of labor are vague and easily misinterpreted: Do those dull cramps signal that Baby is moving into position, or are they a result of the grande burrito you ate last night? Is that little trickle of fluid your water breaking, or is it just urine leaking because a seven-pound baby is resting on your full bladder? To help you figure out when you're really nearing your delivery date, check out these cues that signal the first signs of labor.

Signs That Labor is Days Away

Just when you think you can't possibly get any bigger, you may experience the following signs of going into labor. Note that these symptoms don't occur in any particular order, and you may experience several within the same day or a few days of each other. They indicate that labor is on the horizon.

  • "Engagement," or the sensation of the baby dropping lower into your pelvic cavity. The weight of your baby is no longer pressing on your diaphragm, and you may be able to breathe more freely as a result.
  • Slight weight loss.
  • Dull pain low in your back that comes and goes.
  • Loose and frequent bowel movements with cramping. "That's the body's way of emptying the bowels so the uterus will contract well," surmises Rochel Lieberman, a Brooklyn, New York, nurse-midwife. "Indigestion and vomiting prior to labor are also possible."
  • An increase in Braxton Hicks contractions or "practice" contractions that feel like a tightening or hardening of the uterus with possible mild cramps.
  • A feeling of restlessness/increased energy, or a marked sense of fatigue. The sense is that you don't want to leave any unfinished business at home. If you do feel a spike in the nesting instinct, "don't knock yourself out," says Barbara Moran, a nurse-midwife in Dunn Loring, Virginia. "You'll need your energy for labor."

Signs You're Going Into Labor Soon

If you experience any of these symptoms, labor will probably happen sooner rather than later.

Your Water Breaks

You've probably had nightmares about this sign of impending labor suddenly happening in the office elevator or at the movies, but only a small minority of people—in one study, as few as 8 percent—report that their sac of amniotic fluid broke before they started having regular contractions. Even if your water does break, you're likely to feel a small leak, not a big gush, because your baby's head often prevents too much fluid from leaking out.

Once the sac has ruptured, it usually means that labor is just around the corner, says Carol J. Grabowski, M.D., chief of staff of the women's division at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, in California. Eighty percent of pregnant people spontaneously go into labor within 12 hours after their water breaks. And those who don't are likely to be induced because the risk of infection increases once the amniotic sac has ruptured.

You Notice a Discharge or "Bloody Show"

During pregnancy, the cervix stays closed and plugged up with mucus. It's nature's way of protecting your baby from infection. But as you progress toward labor, the cervix begins to dilate and soften in preparation for delivery, causing what's accumulated there to dislodge. The mucus, which can measure up to a teaspoonful, is dispelled as either a blob (called the "mucus plug") or a runny smear. This mucous discharge may look brown (from old blood) or pink as the cervix continues to thin and open, causing tiny blood vessels to break along the surface of the cervix and tinge the mucus. After you notice the "bloody show," labor could be hours, days, or even weeks away, Dr. Grabowski says.

Your Back Really Hurts

If you're like a lot of pregnant people, your back may have been aching for months. But when the pain becomes extremely harsh, this can be a sign that you're experiencing "back labor," which happens in nearly one-third of pregnancies. "Normally, a baby descends the birth canal with its face pressed against the your spine," notes Kay Johnson, a certified nurse-midwife in Atlanta. "But in some cases, the baby descends with its skull hitting the spine." The result? "Constant pain that may radiate to the abdomen but is mostly concentrated in the back." Whether you experience true back labor or not, excruciating back pain is a sure first sign of labor approaching.

American Baby