Is it Time to Have a Baby? When to Go to the Hospital for Labor

When to go to the hospital for labor (text) rests on top of a photo of a pregnant woman's belly. The woman is holding a clock.

So, you’re finished with your “getting ready for baby” checklist, and you’ve packed your hospital bag for mom complete with the best maternity pajamas! What happens next? You’re probably wondering when to go to the hospital for labor!

The bad news is that it’s now a waiting game.

You wait until that wonderful moment when you’re in active labor and it’s time to head to the hospital and have your baby.

But when exactly is that moment?

What, exactly, should you be looking for?

As if pregnancy wasn’t challenging enough, with morning sickness, leaky bladder, and changing body shape, figuring out when to go to the hospital can be its own form of stress.

It would be ah-mazing if there were some clear-cut “bat signal” you could wait to receive before you head to your hospital or birthing center, but regretfully, that’s not the case.

Luckily, there is some great information that can help you feel more prepared for “what to expect when you’re almost finished expecting.”

Read on to find out!

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Are These Active Labor Contractions or Did I Overeat At Dinner?

I tend to be a somewhat paranoid person, but put a baby inside of me and my anxiety skyrockets to above-average-for-me levels. 

Take my pregnancy with my first daughter, for example.

I’d read the books, talked to my midwives, and felt confident I knew how to time contractions the right way.

Despite this, though, I never felt as clueless about my own body as I did in those last few weeks of pregnancy. 

Not only was I worried that every sensation I felt was inevitably some phase of labor, but I was also too scared to go to the hospital and be one of “those moms.”

You know, those moms who show up convinced they’re in labor when it’s really just some third-trimester gas pains or Braxton Hicks contractions.

Disclaimer: Don’t be ME! If you think you might be in labor, please just call your doctor or or midwife or go to the hospital…if they send you back home, so be it!

Do Your Research and Listen to YOUR Body

On the evening I finally went into labor (almost two weeks past my due date, mind you), I was feeling contractions, but I was still convinced they weren’t “it.”

I told my husband we might want to go to the hospital, but I didn’t think there was any rush. 

I waltzed around the house, washed my hair, blow-dried my hair, and started brushing my teeth. My husband frantically moved around like a chicken with his head cut off.

Finally, he told me he did not know how to deliver a baby, and I’d better get my butt in the car.

So we left.

During our 30 minute drive to the hospital, I was still trying to convince him our baby wasn’t actually coming.

I was so far overdue, I’d just accepted my body didn’t know how to give birth, and I’d be raising my child in utero. It would be great, I promised!

My husband wasn’t convinced. He started asking me questions about what happens when you go into labor.

I racked my brain for answers but suddenly realized I couldn’t remember a single thing I’d learned during my research.

I felt like I had done a lot of work after I was 37 weeks along to understand how labor progresses, but now that it was here, I couldn’t remember anything.

Eventually, I discovered I’d been very wrong. I was actually in labor, and our daughter was born around 12 hours later.

The moral of the story is this: Do your research, understand the signs, and be prepared for what your body might do when your baby is ready to make his or her big debut.

Woman reclines on couch in labor
Knowing when to go to the hospital for labor can be tough. Let us help you figure it out!

Symptoms of Labour Pain in the 9th Month

Please, PLEASE, keep the following in mind: every woman’s labor experience is different!

While you might experience these symptoms of labour pain in the 9th month, there’s a good chance you’ll only notice some or even none.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can dig into the nitty-gritty. What types of things can you expect to experience during your final trimester of pregnancy

There are a few common signs labor could be coming soon. These signs include:

  • More frequent backaches and cramping. Much like the lower back pain in early pregnancy experienced by many women, you may start to have more frequent backaches and cramping before labor begins.
  • Increased number of Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labor pains or “practice contractions.”
  • Your cervix will begin to dilate (open) and efface (thin) in preparation for delivery. Your doctor will notify you of this at your weekly check-ins during the third trimester.
  •  As your baby drops into the birthing position, your breathing may improve. Since your baby compresses your organs during the final trimester, you can feel more out of breath than normal, but as delivery approaches, you might notice that you are breathing more easily. 
  • Some women experience increased amounts of vaginal discharge, which can be clear, pink, or tinged with blood. This is often referred to as the “bloody show” and typically happens within a few days of labor beginning.
  • You may have an urge to begin “nesting.” This often involves a sudden desire to clean and organize the house, prepare for the baby, or finish the nursery.
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What Happens 24-Hours Before Labor Begins?

Ahh, the day before labor – what an unassuming time that can be.

Take me, for example.

As previously stated, I was convinced that “going into labor” was not in the cards and that the doctor would have to coax my little darling out of my body, or she might just live in there forever.

During my last appointment with my OB, he decided to strip my membranes. This is a not-so-delightful procedure where practitioners use their fingers to “gently” pull your bag of waters away from the side of the uterus. 

While this was not the most pleasant experience, it apparently worked. 

A few hours later, while having lunch with my mom, I started to feel odd. I wish I could better define what exactly “odd” felt like, but there’s really no way to describe it. 

We left lunch and went to walk around Home Goods. I continued feeling strange and began experiencing cramps and twinges in my uterus. 

I fondly recall plopping down on a $400 chair because I needed a break. My mother explained that if my water broke all over the chair, she’d probably have to run out and leave me to fend for myself.

Later that night, I began noticing the tell-tale signs of actual labor…consistent contractions were coming every 7-10 minutes. 

I finally realized the “strangeness” I’d been experiencing was simply the beginning of my labor.

Some women report feeling “off” in the day or two before labor begins. But there are some other common signs your baby is on their way, including:

A woman rests her head on a bed. Her stomach is very large with pregnancy.
Making yourself comfortable during early labor is so important.

How Do I Know If My Water Broke?

In movies and on tv, when a woman’s water breaks, it’s a typhoon-level gush that clearly indicates a baby is on the way.

The experience is usually less dramatic in real life.

It can actually can difficult for some people to tell if their water has broken or if they’re just struggling with another “leaky bladder” situation.

While some women do experience a “gush” of clear or yellow liquid, many feel more of a slight trickle or dampness inside their underwear.

If you’re confused about whether your water has broken or not, there are a couple of things you can do. 

First off, do a smell test. Yes, I know it sounds disgusting, but smelling the liquid can actually be beneficial. 

If instead of smelling like urine, amniotic fluid has no smell or a sweet scent, there’s a good chance it’s your amniotic fluid. 

Still not sure? Give your doctor a call or head to the hospital just to be on the safe side.  

Learning How to Time Contractions

So, you’ve decided that your little one is officially on the way.  Next, you’ll need to determine when to go to the hospital for labor.

Once labor has started, there’s a good chance that it will still take a while for your baby to make their debut.

In fact, for most first-time moms, early labor will often last anywhere from 6 – 12 hours, and active labor can take up to another 8 hours, on average.

It’s essential to figure out how to time contractions to ensure you’re in the active labor stage.

What are Active Labor Contractions?

During early labor, women who do not have a high risk pregnancy should remain at home. Early labor consists of sporadic contractions that come every 5 – 15 minutes and last 60 – 90 seconds.

Once you make the switch to active labor contractions, you’ll want to hit the road.

Active labor contractions usually start when your cervix has dilated to approximately 6cm. They become more regular and easier to keep track of, often coming every 3 minutes or so. 

These types of contractions are also much stronger and more intense than early labor contractions.

It’s time to go to the hospital when your contractions hit this point!

Active labor can also come with other symptoms. These include (but aren’t limited to): nausea, the urge to push, lower back pain, or your water breaking.

As you approach 10cm, you will enter the final stage of labor: transition. This is the most painful part of the labor process. It includes intense contractions coming very close together and last 60-90 seconds.

If you feel the urge to push or a pressure sensation in your rectum, it could be time to start delivering your baby. Call for a nurse or doctor at this point if they’re not with you already.

Woman holds her iphone and has one had on her pregnant belly.
Learning to time your contractions is crucial in terms of knowing when to go to the hospital for labor.

Emergency Reasons to Go to Labor and Delivery 

While active labor contractions are the most common explanation of when to go to the hospital for labor, there are other things to consider during the final trimester. 

If you experience any of the following symptoms or situations, head to the ER or call your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Decline in fetal movement
  • Intense vomiting
  • Vaginal bleeding, especially if it’s more than just a minimal amount in your discharge
  • Severe swelling and headaches that could be caused by preeclampsia, a pregnancy-related condition that often causes high blood pressure

Things to Keep in Mind About When to Go to the Hospital for Labor

Whether this is your first baby or fourth, there are some things to keep in mind about when to go to the hospital for labor.

For starters, if you’ve had babies before, consider how long your first labor lasted.

Things tend to move faster after the first pregnancy, so there’s a good chance you’ll need to head to the hospital sooner than the first time. But again, each mama is different.

You should also be aware of any possible conditions or risk factors you might have. These could include preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, and these conditions could interfere with your’s and the baby’s during labor.

And lastly, make sure to time your trip to the hospital before you go into labor.

Give yourself plenty of time to get to the hospital. Don’t run the risk of delivering your baby on the side of the road!

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The Unpredictable and Frustrating Reality of Labor

I wish we could give a precise answer to the query of when to go to the hospital for labor. 

Unfortunately, though, every woman and situation is unique. Hence the reason so many birth stories take their own unusual twists and turns.

The best advice our community can give you is to pay attention to your body. Be sure to look out for those active labor contractions to start.

It can seem frustrating not knowing the right reasons to go to labor and delivery. But remember to trust your own body and recognize how you can benefit from patient empowerment!

If you’ve already delivered a baby, how did you know when to go to the hospital for labor?

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