How to Tell When Labor Begins

Awaiting the birth of a baby is an exciting and anxious time. Most women give birth between 38 and 42 weeks of pregnancy. However, there is no way to know exactly when you will go into labor. Birth often occurs within two weeks before or after your expected due date.

Making Plans

As you plan for the birth of your baby, you can take steps to help your labor go more smoothly. It is best to discuss your questions about labor with your health care team before the time comes:

  • When should I call my doctor?
  • How can I reach the doctor or nurse after office hours?
  • Should I go directly to the hospital or call the office first?
  • Are there any special steps I should follow when I think I'm in labor?

Before it's time to go to the hospital, there are many things to think about.

  • Distance
  • Transportation
  • Time of day
  • Home arrangements
  • Work arrangements

How Labor Begins

No one knows exactly what causes labor to start, although changes in hormones may play a role. Sometimes, it is hard to tell when labor begins.

True Versus False Labor

You may have periods of "false" labor, or irregular contractions of your uterus, before "true" labor begins. These are called Braxton Hicks contractions. They are normal but can be painful at times.

One good way to tell the difference is to time the contractions. Note how long it is from the start of one contraction to the start of the next one. Keep a record for an hour. If you think you're in labor, call your doctor's office or hospital.


You are nearing a special, exciting time. Although it's not possible to know exactly when labor will begin, you can be ready by knowing what to expect. Being prepared can make it easier for you to relax and focus on the arrival of your baby when the time comes.

This excerpt from ACOG's Patient Education Pamphlet is provided for your information. It is not medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for visiting your doctor. If you need medical care, have any questions, or wish to receive the full text of this Patient Education Pamphlet, please contact your obstetrician-gynecologist.

To ensure the information is current and accurate, ACOG titles are reviewed every 18 months.

Copyright © July 1999 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

This article is provided by Medem, Inc. All rights reserved.