Your due date is approaching and every change in your body feels like it could be a labor sign.
Some women say they had no clue labor was coming and other women have all the signs of labor approaching.
If you’re a first time mama, you’re probably hypervigilant for the early signs of labor. You really looking forward to meeting your baby!
No doubt, though, waiting on the signs of labor can be frustrating.
Each woman’s body reacts to the hormones in labor and birth differently. You might have several labor signs or you might have none.
Remember, some signs of labor are very subtle.
Whether you notice signs or labor or not, it’s normal. Your body is still working to prepare for the big day.
Read on to find out about the most common signs of labor that indicate it’s 24 to 48 hours away.
As a midwife, I sometimes wish I had a crystal ball.
What we birth professionals do know is that pregnant bodies are unique and wonderful.
How do I know labor is close?
It’s common, especially in first-time mothers, for babies to arrive past their ‘due date’.
At the end of the day, the due date is just a guess date. It’s an estimated date your baby might arrive.
Although babies are ready when they are ready, there are some signs of labor that indicate it’s getting close. Remember each woman, pregnancy, and birth experience is unique.
Therefore not all these signs of labor might happen and that’s absolutely fine.
Check out the list below for signs that labor is possibly 24-48 hours away!
Is labor 24-48 hours away?
The following signs are a pretty good indicator that labor isn’t far away. Some signs can linger for a while, but take heart; you will go into labor soon.
Signs labor is 24 to48 hours away
The following signs are a pretty good indicator that labor isn’t far away. No one sign is a true indicator of labor is 24 to 48 hours away. Often you might only realise later ‘ah, that’s what that was about!’.
Some signs can linger for a while, but take heart mama; labor will begin soon.
#1: Bloody show
Bloody show? Mucus plug? What are these signs of labor?
The terms mucus plug and bloody show are sometimes interchanged, but they’re slightly different from one other.
Let’s try not to confuse the two.
The mucus plug sits inside and at the opening of the cervix, at the bottom of the uterus. During pregnancy, along with amniotic sac, the mucus plug protects your baby.
The mucus plug can be white or clear, egg-white consistency, sticky or a blob. It can come away and appear as discharge during pregnancy, especially in the later stages. This is when your cervix is slowly starting to prepare for labor, moving its position and even thinning. You can’t always see this but it’s one of the signs that labor is close.
As your cervix starts to dilate and open, thanks to contractions, blood vessels can rupture. The mucus plug might appear brown, blood-streaked, or even pink in color.
Usually, when you see a bloody show, this is an early sign of labor and it means contractions will start to ramp up and active labor is likely less than 48 hours away.
Occasionally a bloody show might be red in color. If this happens (or if you have any other concerns), check-in with your midwife or healthcare provider.
#2: Braxton Hicks
The most famous sign of labor is contractions.
What no one tells you, though, is that different types of contractions can be tricky to distinguish.
Braxton Hicks contractions are seen as ‘practice contractions’. They happen to prepare your uterus and your baby for labor.
Braxton Hicks contractions can feel like your belly is giving a squeeze and becoming tight for 20 seconds or longer. They are usually painless, and you might feel slight discomfort or pressure.
You could experience Braxton Hicks from 20 weeks, or later, but you might not really notice them until closer to 34 weeks.
As you get closer to labor, your Braxton Hicks could ramp up a notch.
Having more frequent and intense practice contractions can indicate you’re in prelabor. This is when your cervix starts to thin and dilate, as it gets ready for early labor.
This is one of those signs that labor is getting close but it’s hard to know when it goes from pregnancy normal. It’s hard to predict the time-lapse between prelabor and true labor. Each woman’s experience of this can be different.
#3: Labor contractions
Contractions can be irregular at the start of labor, and mark the end of your pregnancy.
Irregular contractions are not the same timing, duration, or strength as each other. They are common in early labor, as active labor is approaching. They are usually one of the strong signs labor is 24-48 hours away.
Irregular contractions can feel like your belly is tightening, with cramping lower in your pelvis.
You might feel some pressure or discomfort, and back pain.
It might still be a few hours or a few days before active labor.
Active labor contractions are typically described as 2-3 minutes apart (timed from the start of one contraction to the next), 60 seconds in duration, and with strong intensity or pain.
Active labor contractions dilate your cervix. At the same time, your brain is heading towards the right mind state for you to birth your baby.
They’re important because they don’t just physically open the barrier between baby and the outside world, but also remove any mental barriers that might distract you from your main task right now: giving birth.
Labor contractions are so intense you completely clear your mind by focusing on them when they’re present and resting when they’re not.
Diarrhea is also one of the signs labor is getting close.
Just days, or even hours, before labor starts your body starts to prepare itself. It releases hormones called prostaglandins that prepare and dilate the cervix in response to uterine contractions.
Higher levels of prostaglandins can also cause your digestive system to contract and empty out anything in there.
This means you can have loose bowel movements or diarrhea. It also ensures there’s nothing in the way of your baby descending into the birth canal.
Although these signs are normal, make sure you contact your healthcare provider if the diarrhea is accompanied by painful stomach cramping, or if you don’t feel relieved after having a bowel movement.
This is another sign that labor might be approaching.
The digestive system takes a lot of energy to function and your body needs that energy during labor. Nausea is also caused by higher levels of prostaglandins and keeps your digestive system empty until after the birth of your baby.
If you feel nauseous with vomiting, fever, stomach cramps, and/or diarrhea, you should seek medical assistance in case you’ve contracted a stomach virus. These symptoms aren’t signs labor is near but being dehydrated can complicate your pregnancy and birth, so see your doctor immediately.
#6: Lower back pain
Lower back pain can be one of those labor signs that’s hard to distinguish from regular pregnancy aches.
It can mean your uterus is more active than normal – for example, as contractions become more regular or intense.
It’s also related to your pelvic bones adapting to your baby dropping and the pressure applied to the cervix when the baby drops further down into your pelvis.
You might feel lower back pain that comes and goes. This kind of discomfort in your back when labor is approaching usually means those Braxton Hicks are changing into labor contractions and that’s why that lower back pain comes and goes.
If lower back pain is constant, or doesn’t seem to follow any kind of rhythm, it’s usually caused by baby getting lower into the birth canal.
Whether your lower back pain is due to contractions or baby dropping into your pelvis, it’s a positive sign labor could be 24 to 48 hours away.
#7: Water breaking
Although water breaking is how labor starts in most films, for only 10% of women this is how labor begins.
If you are at the end of your pregnancy and your water breaks, this is one of the clearer signs that labor is 24-48 hours away.
This study shows 70-90% of women whose water breaks will go into labor within the next two days – most of them within the next 24 hours.
Although it’s commonly known as ‘water breaking’, it’s actually the amniotic sac around the baby that breaks and the amniotic fluid is released.
The amniotic fluid is full of hormones that trigger labor to start. As the fluid trickles down, the woman’s brain is receiving messages to precipitate the actions that will lead to true labor.
How do you feel hours before labor?
Have you heard of the nesting instinct?
Although this starts to happen a few weeks in the last weeks of pregnancy, most women are usually filled with a burst of energy in the last few days before labor. So it can count as one of the labor signs!
It really feels like your body is literally pushing itself, making sure everything is done before the baby arrives, and you can’t relax until this is sorted out.
You might just have a feeling that labor is close and you are gifted with a burst of energy to do what needs to be done. This is your innate instinct and awareness, tuned into your baby as well as into your own body.
Many midwives notice women who go through a big life-changing event, such moving into a new house or renovating, when they are full-term, will finish the task before they go into labor.
This is part of our nesting instinct. If we’re in the middle of something big, the signals we sending our bodies are saying, ‘It’s not the time yet’, ‘I’m not ready’, or ‘There’s something that needs sorting out before labor begins’.
When we finally relax and nest, our body knows now is the right time. We’re ready. It doesn’t necessarily mean labor is 24-48 hours away. But the process can begin.
Is instinct really a labor sign? Yes, it is. During pregnancy, you’re even more receptive to understanding what’s happening in your body.
When you feel something, stop and listen to your body. This message is very powerful and you know it.
What causes labor to start?
Knowing when to expect your baby is all fine and well, but what actually sets off the process that means you will meet your baby in the next 24-48 hours? If you’re looking out for signs of labor approaching, what kicks this process off?
Apparently, certain cell markers appear just before labor and they enter the amniotic fluid. The baby then releases a combination of hormones that travel to the mother’s brain.
The baby’s lungs also signal when they’re mature enough for life outside the womb.
Both cell markers and baby’s lungs will trigger a response in the mother’s uterus and cervix, basically saying, ‘Let’s take action. The changes we were waiting for are finally here’.
Can labor start and stop over days?
Although this can happen, it’s not very common. Labor signs can linger over days, even weeks depending on many factors.
When labor starts, the only thing that stops it is a sudden decrease in the flow of the leading hormone during labor, oxytocin.
Oxytocin decreases due to the effect of adrenaline. If something makes our adrenaline levels rise, then labor stops.
The body understands this is a ‘fight or flight’ situation and labor is stalled until the mother is safe. Then labor can start again.
You can read more about this in Undisturbed Labor – What Is It And Why Aim For One?
In most cases, when women feel discomfort for several days before true labor starts, it usually means they are going through a very long latent phase of labor.
Active labor doesn’t really start until the contractions are regular, long-lasting, and close together. All these facts about labor contractions become more intense as time goes by.
When the latent phase is long the uterine activity is quite irregular and, yes, this can happen over days.
There’s more information in The Stages of Labor-An Informative Guide.
What time of day does labor usually start?
We’ve seen how hormones work to make labor possible.
Labor usually starts when our bodies are relaxed, and our adrenaline levels are at their lowest. Oxytocin levels are able to rise up and another hormone, melatonin, works with oxytocin to promote effective contractions.
Can you think of when this is more likely to happen?
You’re right. It usually happens during the night when you’re relaxed and unstressed, and melatonin levels are naturally higher.
If the latent phase of labor is long, there are usually lots of contractions at night, which then stop during the day. The labor process starts naturally, but when our brains start to be more active, the uterus rests to let us carry on with whatever is needed.
Our primal brains need quiet and privacy to give birth. It’s an evolutionary safety mechanism that hasn’t left human beings.
Mammals in natural conditions, tend to hide away, even from their own species, to give birth. Being stared at is not really welcome when you are in active labor.
For this reason, day mammals (like cats, cows, or human beings) tend to give birth at night and night mammals (like bats or mice) usually give birth during the day.
If labor is not fully established when the day begins, the contractions usually fade away and wait for a more appropriate time.
When active labor is really underway, you’ll have no doubts you’re very close to meeting your new baby!