How do I know if I am in labour?

Document Am I in Labour? — Tip Sheet PDF

Nearing your estimated due date, you’ll likely go through a wide range of emotions about what your birth experience and becoming a parent will look like. From excitement and joy, to nervousness and confusion – you’ll feel it all and all of it is normal.

It’s also common to question every twinge, tickle and change, as you near your due date. Being aware of your body is fantastic and important. Yet, while many changes are happening, not everything is a true sign that your birth is imminent.

Most people have a knowledge base about birth that is hugely influenced by the media. We’re used to seeing fast progressing births, most of which begin with the pregnant person’s waters breaking dramatically, followed by a frenzy of getting to the hospital.

In actuality, labour is a process. For first time mothers, it is completely normal to be in labour (from the start of early labour to the delivery of the baby and then the placenta) for an entire day, or more. Added to that, only 8-10% of pregnant people have their waters break as the first sign of labour. But of course, that’s not Hollywood drama.

To try to dispel some of those ideas and images, here is a list of what to look for as you approach your due month (remember it is also normal to deliver 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after your estimated due date). Certain changes will assure you that your labour will begin soon – over the next few days or weeks. Others are clear signs that you are in labour and will actually meet your baby shortly.

Knowing these signs can also help you clarify when it’s best to stay home, as well as ascertain an appropriate time to head to your preferred place to birth. Most importantly, being informed can help keep everyone calm and reassured.

Signs That Your Baby is On Its Way Soon

Cramping and back pain. These cramps will likely feel like menstrual cramps. They may be regular or come and go, over hours or days. They may also be accompanied by back pain.

Nesting. We’ve all heard this one before, and while it may sound like a myth, the nesting urge happens to many pregnant people. The lively, burst of energy and need to organize and prepare your space for your baby and postpartum days, is actually influenced by a combination of the hormones estradiol, progesterone and prolactin, all of which are involved in influencing labour.

Emptying. Babies need space to move through your body and into the world. And your body knows this. Frequent trips to the washroom, with soft bowel movements, are common in the days leading up to labour.

Bloody Show. The cervix is protected by a barrier known as a mucous plug. As you near your due date, you may start to notice that you are losing your mucous plug. It can come out in bits or as a whole. Just as the name alludes to, your mucous plug will be snot like in texture and will be a light pinkish colour. Once you start losing your mucous plug, it could be days or weeks before labour begins.

Water Leaking or Breaking. For most birthing people, their water (also known as the amniotic sac or bag of waters, which is filled with amniotic fluid) will break during the later stages of birth. It may leak and dribble, gush with an audible pop, or be broken by a health care practitioner. Only 1 in 10 people will experience their water breaking as their first sign of labour.

There is no need to rush to the hospital if your waters have broken and there are no signs of contractions, and if your water is clear and odourless. If your waters break as the first sign of labour, contractions will usually begin minutes or hours later. However, it is normal for contractions to begin on their own 12-48 hours later. You will likely just want to make a note of the time your water broke to inform your health care provider.

Remember, while these stages don’t mean you’re in labour just yet, they are an important part of the picture. Your body and baby are doing amazing things every step of the way, leading up to your birth.

For Sure Signs That Your Baby Is On Its Way

Contractions. Generally, as labour progresses, contractions will follow a pattern, of getting STRONGER, LONGER and CLOSER TOGETHER.

It’s common, in birth preparation books, to see labour segmented into 3 distinct stages – early, active and transition, each partially defined by a contraction pattern. The truth is that there is no clear line where you cross over, from one stage to the next. Rather, it’s more of a fluid and individual process. So, while contractions will generally fall into a progressive rhythm, it’s important to remember that lulls and changes are common.

The (4) 5-1-1 (2) rule is often recommended by health care providers, as a sign of active labour and as a time to think about heading in to your preferred birthing location. This means that contractions are in a pattern of:

  • 4 to 5 minutes apart
  • lasting for 1 minute
  • consistently, across a period of 1 to 2 hours

The positioning of a baby, the length of your labour, changes in birth place (i.e. moving from home to the hospital), and other factors, can affect how contractions present themselves. Finding a doula or health care practitioner that can normalize these changes, and suggest ways to encourage a rhythm, has huge potential to help create a safe and successful birthing experience.

Changes in Cervix (effacement and dilation).

When your cervix is changing, it’s also a clear sign that labour is near or moving forwards. Cervical changes are measured by health care practitioners, during routine prenatal appointments close to your estimated due date, and also during labour.

It is normal for cervical changes to begin before you are in labour. The pressure from baby’s head, moving downwards to prepare for its descent, will signal to the cervix to begin to thin out (efface) and broaden (dilate).

However, a clear sign that labour is in progress, is cervical changes accompanied by contractions. As early labour begins and moves into active labour, and baby begins its descent, the changes will progress at a quicker rate.

Happy birthing! You and your baby have totally got this.

About Kate

Kate SissonsKate is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, Childbirth Educator, Infant Sleep Educator and Yoga Instructor, currently living in Toronto, ON. When she’s not supporting new families on their parenting journey, she is running after her wonderfully active 2-year-old twins. She loves exploring the ravines of the city, drinking green tea and green smoothies (in large mugs), and the colour purple.

For more information about Kate and her support services, visit or visit her on Facebook.