Signs of Labor: What Are the Signs of Labor & When Should I Go to the Hospital for Labor


You’re at a dinner party. You’re 39 weeks pregnant. 

And your water breaks. 

The party stops … stares … “OMG” … your world stands still while your husband neurotically grabs jackets, coats and your purse. It’s time to make like Danica Patrick and speed-off to the hospital, right?

…you’re hoping no red lights slow you down … and that cop isn’t sitting behind the McDonald’s billboard like he was last week (french fries sound good though, don’t they?!?)  … you’re praying you make it to the hospital in the nick of time.

Grab the *newly* released #1 Amazon best selling book Birth Book #2 – Proven Ways to Have a Healthier Baby After Birth (what studies show and many providers never tell you about your baby’s first hour) on Amazon (read the reviews, this book will help you avoid your baby missing out on critical health improvements after birth) … click here

I kept playing that picture over and over in my head for months! It was seriously my worst nightmare!

I thought that if I didn’t know the exact signs of labor and didn’t have the perfect answer to “when should I go to the hospital?”, that I was gonna have my babe in the front seat. 

Well … it never happened. 

And it doesn’t happen to 99.something% of us. We’ve been watching wayyyy too many movies and shows! The movies always show our signs of labor like they’re clear as day.

In the real world, the signs of labor and knowing “when to go to the hospital” aren’t so obvious. 

But before we talk about the non-Hollywood answers to “what are the signs of labor?” & “when should I go to the hospital?” questions, it’s super important to know WHY it even matters. It’s not what you think…. 

The Truth About the Signs of Labor & Birth:

1. Only 12% of women even have their water break before going into labor.

2. Unless they had extenuating circumstances (health issues, GBS positive or super fast labors), rushing to the hospital is exactly what most mamas wish they wouldn’t have done. They wish they would have waited at home as long as possible for more consistent signs of labor. 

Why Would We Want to Labor at Home as Long as Possible?

Hospitals strive to handle everything that happens under their roof with protocols- that’s a fancy way of saying “rules.” That’s good, since hospitals manage chaotic emergency situations.

But your birth isn’t a chaotic emergency situation. It’s the exact opposite.

Most of us prefer to be quiet & comfortable so we can focus during labor & birth. It helps us to have a faster labor and easier birth. The hospital protocol that manages emergency situations can easily disturb everything we’re trying to do during labor and birth. The protocol gets in our way. You’ll see why below.

The protocols usually don’t let us have the personalized, quiet and individualized care most of us want and need to speed labor along. It’s not that hospitals are purposefully trying to slow down your labor (or are bad places to birth your baby), it’s just hard to take one set of “rules” and apply them to all women.

We’re all different. We’re all unique.

We need and want different ways to labor and birth our babies. There’s no one right way to birth a baby, but there’s a right way for you.

The problem happens when the protocols funnel you into laboring and birthing one way. The hospital’s way. 

That’s like saying to a newly engaged woman, “That’s great you’d like an outdoor wedding, in a vineyard, wearing a custom made wedding gown & champagne toast at sunset and all … BUT …you’re gettin’ what everyone else gets, church wedding, ballroom reception & meatballs.” It’s fantastic if that’s what you wanted, but a huge “womp womp” if it’s not.

**we’re giving away a FREE chapter of Birth Book #1. Check out all the 5 star reviews …  Grab your FREE chapter … click here**

Your first signs of labor do not mean you’ll have your baby in minutes.

When your water breaks or contractions start, it could mean hours or even days before baby is born. If you show up at the hospital at the first sign of labor, when your contractions are sporadic, and the hospital admits you (some will send you home)- the hospital clock starts ticking.

If your labor stalls out or doesn’t progress as fast as the hospital and/or staff would like, that’s when interventions usually enter the picture. If you’re hoping for a natural, unmedicated birth, or even a medicated, vaginal birth this could be jeopardized by going to the hospital too soon.

*There’s been an unofficial “24 hour rule” for most hospitals: after your water breaks, providers say you “need” to be in labor within 24 hours or you’ll be induced. The “why” behind that rule is because the baby’s protective amniotic sac is no longer intact. Provider’s once thought that infection would kick in, unless labor kicked into gear. But research evidence shows that is not true

The largest study to date was done in 1996 (by Ellen Hodnett) with over 5,000 women & the results found no increase in infection for moms whose water broke. They were watched up to 4 days after their water broke. Ellen Hodnett went on to explain that infections increased when numerous vaginal exams were performed, by multiple providers. She found, that when undisturbed, the vagina remained air tight which kept out any infections. But when vaginal exams were performed, by multiple providers, “a pathway” for bacteria was introduced into the vagina, which actually caused the infection. It was the vaginal exams, NOT just the water breaking that increased the chance of infection. Evidence shows you do not need to run to the hospital, unless that’s what you want to do.

When we show up at the first signs of labor, without being in a solid pattern of active labor (i.e.-contractions five minutes apart, each contraction lasting one minute, this goes on for an hour), we increase our chances of having interventions. Interventions increase the chance of other interventions, including c-sections. It’s just a big ole snowball rolling downhill that picks up steam as it goes. Once it gets going, it’s very hard to stop it.

** Tests determining if you are GBS positive (group B strep)-are usually done between the 35th and 37th week of pregnancy. If you are GBS Positive this changes how you will do things. Providers will typically want you to come in sooner rather than later after labor begins, so you can start your antibiotics. Definitely chat with your provider about this beforehand so that you understand how the process works and so you can let your provider know if you have any questions or concerns or would like to do things differently.

What are interventions?

We mentioned interventions above and how they’re like snowballs. Interventions are simply when nurses or providers do something to “intervene” with the normal birth process (you laboring and birthing on your own). If you talk to any farmer you’ll learn that horses, dogs or any animal will go to a quiet, dark, place by themselves and give birth. Very rarely does a vet (or farmer) need to intervene or do something during this process. Humans are the same way. Intervention is good when medically required, but increases your chances for c-section if not. According to research evidence, many of the most common hospital interventions are not medically required. Here’s how it might look for if we go to the hospital too early…

1. We arrive at hospital, super excited cause we’re in labor (woohoo!)

2. The staff hooks us up to Continuous Electronic Fetal Monitoring so they can continually hear our baby’s heart rate.

3. Because we’re now hooked up to a machine, we can’t move around as we’d like (movement by the way is proven to shorten labor) so our labor starts slowing down.

4. Hospital staff decides to give us some Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) to get labor going again. But then our contractions get longer, stronger and are more erratic than our body’s natural contractions.

5. So then we’re ready for an epidural .

6. We’re feeling pretty beat because our muscles are tired from all the strong, erratic contractions.  Plus hospital rules say we can’t eat or drink (which goes against the research evidence). Don’t forget baby is tired too (they’re working hard just like we are), and baby doesn’t appear to be tolerating the “long & strong” contractions very well- they might have a few heart rate decelerations (it happens often, but doesn’t mean it’s an emergency) and we start thinking “just get baby out.”

7. C-section is mentioned and wham bam thank you ma’am, that’s what happens.

According to many Doctors, Nurses & Midwives we’ve interviewed (all of which work in different hospitals) this scenario is very common. It’s also very predictable. But that doesn’t mean it has to happen to us, unless that’s what we want. 

Why does labor often slow down at the hospital?

As a first-time mom, it’s soooo easy to be eager to get the labor party started. Like now. Somehow we think that going to the hospital will make the birth “real” & will really get things going. Research actually shows that labor often slows down when women get to the hospital.

Our body starts producing adrenaline hormones (catecholamines) when we get to the hospital, because we’re excited, we’re ready for baby to be born and being at the hospital makes it all very official. It’s so exciting! Plus the bright lights, the medical environment & just not being at home feels different, causing our adrenaline to kick it up a few notches (check out this study of over 10,000 women from US Cochrane Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.) But studies show that adrenaline actually slows labor down- it’s the ancient cave man “fight or flight” response.

“What’s That?” You Ask.

If a cavewoman was in labor and a tiger approached, the adrenaline she felt would automatically stall labor so she could run faster, jump higher & escape the tiger. The adrenaline causes blood to reroute away from our core (the non-essential organs & muscles for survival) and go to the extremities that’ll help us survive (eyes, hands, feet, etc). To us, that means blood goes away from our uterus, which results in fewer contractions, and less effective contractions, more painful contractions, ultimately delivering less oxygen to baby.

What Am I Risking by Staying at Home Longer?

Not much really. Yeah, we’re “getting closer” to birth, but as long as we don’t wait toooooo long, we’ll most likely have p-a-l-e-n-t-y of time to get there. Going through labor at home, in our sweet nest, allows us to relax and let those labor friendly hormones flow through our body. If we asked a bunch of moms “what would you do differently?” … most will say…”I would have waited longer to go to the hospital.” Don’t take our word for it, ask some mamas.

I’m Starting to See Some Signs of Labor…How do I know if I’m in Active Labor?

  • Your contractions have a distinct rhythmic pattern and will become more and more intense. 
  • During early labor, women are usually able to do other things, fold laundry, run errands, even bake a cake (double chocolate of course). As labor progresses & contractions become more intense, you’ll have to stop everything to focus through your contraction. 
  • Take a warm bath (not hot). If the contractions subside & aren’t in a consistent rhythmic patter, then it’s “false labor” (Braxton Hicks contractions- see a ton of useful Labor & Birth terms here). If contractions remain steady, then you’re in active labor. 

*A midwife mentioned to us she can tell when a laboring mama needs to go to the hospital just by talking to her on the phone. If the mama can’t talk very well because she has to really concentrate on the contractions as they come (they’re somewhat intense), then it’s time to go to the hospital. If a mama is having contractions but can pretty much talk normally & do things fairly normally during contractions, then it’s not time to go to the hospital yet.


Signs of labor mean our body is warming-up. Signs of labor do not mean active labor.

Active labor, once it’s established, is like a freight train going down a mountain, it cannot be easily stopped. Going to the hospital at this point is recommended and encouraged. Even that adrenaline won’t be able to effectively halt your labor progress. As always, once you suspect that you’re really in labor, call your medical provider and give them a heads up. Also, calling your labor support (such as a doula) can also help you if you’re having trouble figuring out if you’re in active labor.

TIP: During one of your prenatal appointments, ask your provider about the hospital’s policy of admitting women who aren’t fully in active labor yet. If your water breaks and your provider says “come on in” & you don’t want to, you have plenty of info here to suggest to your provider you’d like to wait. You can also ask your provider “why?” As long as you & your baby aren’t in any danger, YOU have authority to make a decision. This is your baby & your birth. Your provider is there to support your goals & keep you safe along the journey.

Being prepared and knowing what to expect will give you mucho confidence. And just try to relax. We know how easy it is to get yourself worked up, especially for the first baby. Just remember laboring is a process and most women wish they’d stayed longer in their own comfortable house.

(written by Sarah. She has two kids: a strong willed and dare we say “spunky” 4-year-old (aka boo bear, buster, mr. monkey) and a drooling, teething, sassy 1 year old (aka smalls, cooey). And she’s married to Steve (aka shmookie). They live in the great state of Michigan.)

Get the latest {FREE} updates straight to your inbox…



  • Beth R.

    Wish i would have read this 3 months ago. The “what interventions” part you wrote about, yep, that was my exact experience. And no one at any point of pre-labor, labor or getting closer to birth painted me a snapshot how things would progress. I’m just learning now that I didn’t learn much of anything in my birth class. I wasn’t taught any information about why things would happen & when they might happen. I ended up with a c-section.

    If I were to do it again, I would have looked a lot more into what I could have done. I would have understood why certain things the nurses wanted to do were being done & would have asked A LOT more questions. I saw my doctor (wasn’t even mine- doctor on duty who I never met before) twice for 15 mins, then they said I needed a c-section because I “wasn’t progressing”. I just assumed that’s what needed to be done. I never asked “why, what danger am I or my baby in?” (learned that question from one of your interviews).

    This has been weighing me down. I actually called my Ob last week and asked him if my baby or I was in any danger requiring the c-section. He said “not any serious danger”. I said thanks, hung up & started to cry.

    Some people will say I’m crazy, but I really think I could have prevented (most likely) that c-section had I done my homework. Arg! I’ll be ready for #2, you can bet your bottom dollar. There’s so much I’ll do differently. Sorry to rant here, I’m still processing my frustrations :)

    • yourbabybooty

      Thanks for sharing your story Beth. I’ve heard many mamas who have requested their medical records after birth to really decipher what was going on the whole time. You are not alone. It’s healthy to process and verbalize your feelings. I know that your next birth will be much different based on what you know now. Keep us posted!

  • luvmyhaze

    I love what you wrote! So perfectly put… I have birthed 2 children naturally, one long and difficult the other fast and almost in the car which honestly would have been fine! Hospitals are great in an emergency but never helped me a bit with the laboring process. Stay home as long as possible… Thank you again!!

    • yourbabybooty

      Aw thanks luvmyhaze! That fast birth sounds like a birth story I’d like to hear!! Your advice is worth its weight in gold, and I wish a lot more mamas did that:) Barring no “almost born in the car” stories:) haha.