pregnant woman in labor thinking about going to hospital

When to go to the hospital for labor

If your due date is close, you know labor is coming soon. But, going into labor doesn’t really look like it’s often shown in the movies – a woman’s water breaking with a dramatic splash, pregnancy hormones raging as she screams for pain relief, and a baby that comes out looking five months old.

The average labor and delivery for the first-time mother is 12-24 hours. Some last less than 12 hours, and some go longer than 24 hours – every labor is different. So, when you experience early labor signs, call your provider immediately for guidance and instructions. Here’s what to look for.

Are there signs that labor is 24 to 48 hours away?

When looking for signs that labor is coming in the next day or two, keep in mind that, because every pregnancy is different, the signs of approaching labor don’t really come with a timetable. These signs, however, are common early signs that labor just might start very soon.


When labor approaches, you may find yourself feeling energized and focused on readying your home for your new baby.

Lightening, or dropping

You may notice you’re carrying your baby lower in your belly than before. That’s because baby is facing down and baby’s head is moving toward the birth canal in preparation for delivery.

Bloody show

Your cervix dilates to make room for delivering your baby. As the walls of the cervix begin to thin out in preparation for labor, the mucus plug that blocks the passage will break free and be discharged. Bloody show in pregnancy isn’t entirely uncommon. Sometimes you’ll see faint streaks of blood.

How do you know the difference between your mucus plug vs. discharge? Your mucus plug, also called bloody show, is a pink-tinged discharge. It’s more stringy and gelatinous than your typical vaginal discharge.

“When you lose your mucus plug, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going into labor,” said Gina Demas, a supervisor for nursing and patient care at OSF HealthCare.

“It could be within a few hours. It could be within a few days. It could not necessarily be related to labor at all. So, when you notify your provider, let them know that you lost your mucus plug.”

Is nausea a sign of labor?

Nausea can be a sign of approaching labor. But it can also be caused by several other things, making it a poor predictor of labor by itself.

Diarrhea before labor is also common. Your body releases compounds called prostaglandins to help get labor started, and these prostaglandins can cause loose stool.

When to go to the hospital for labor

Your last cervical exam may have shown signs that your body is gearing up for labor. You will start to experience regular contractions when the early stage of labor begins. But you may experience contractions for hours before you need medical monitoring.

For first-time mothers, health care providers typically want you to go to the hospital once your contractions are three to four minutes apart for two hours. If you’ve given birth before, your labor is likely to move more quickly. That’s why providers suggest going to the hospital once your contractions occur every five minutes for one hour.

Your water breaking is another sign that your pregnancy has hit the labor stage. It’s time to call your provider and go to the hospital.

How do you know if your water bag – the sac of fluid that surrounds your baby inside the womb – has broken? Your discharge will be more watery than your usual pregnancy discharge. It could be clear, pink, yellow or brown, depending on what’s happening with the baby inside your womb.

Also, your underwear will continue to be damp because you won’t be able to stop the leaking.

How to time contractions

A true labor contraction is felt in your back and all the way around your stomach.

Labor contractions feel different, and are more painful, than Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labor. Braxton Hicks feels like an uncomfortable cramp isolated to one part of your stomach or back.

True contractions consistently occur every few minutes, becoming more painful and at shorter intervals. Braxton Hicks contractions happen irregularly and may even stop when you change positions.

If your contractions aren’t close enough to go to the hospital or you’re having Braxton Hicks and the pain is uncomfortable, you can try to relieve some of the pain at home. Tennis balls can be used to roll across your back for temporary relief. Your provider will be able to offer other suggestions to alleviate back labor pain.

Time your contractions by writing down when they start. Also, note the length of the contraction and the time that passes between the start of one contraction and the next.

A contraction tracker can help you keep it organized.

Last Updated: October 12, 2023

Follow Us on Social Media