Labor: When to Call the Doctor or Midwife

Wondering how you'll know when labor starts, what it feels like and when to get to the hospital or birthing center?

Contractions are the most obvious sign, but you'll want to be sure they aren't Braxton-Hicks contractions, the false labor twinges that can happen weeks before childbirth. Real contractions feel like deep abdominal cramps and:

  • Get stronger, more frequent and more painful over time
  • Don't go away when you change position
  • Start in the lower back and move to the lower abdomen (and sometimes the legs)

Your water might break, a term used to describe when the fluid-filled amniotic sac surrounding your baby in the womb ruptures and a small amount of colorless, odorless amniotic fluid discharges from the vagina. Only about 10% of pregnant women experience this before their contractions actually start, however. Most women don't experience it until they're in active labor.

Your doctor or midwife has likely told you what to do if your water breaks and labor has begun. Women are typically encouraged to head to their hospital or birth center once their contractions are about 1 minute long, 5 minutes apart and have been this way for 1 hour. Follow your healthcare provider's instructions, but call him or her if you have serious concerns about your labor.

Call your doctor or midwife immediately if your water breaks and:

  • The fluid appears green or brown (which may indicate your baby has had a bowel movement in utero) or has a strong odor that isn't that of urine.
  • You're 37 weeks pregnant or less.
  • You feel or see the umbilical cord in or near your vaginal opening (which could be a sign of a rare condition called cord prolapse, when the umbilical cord slips through the cervix and into the birth canal before the baby does. This requires immediate medical attention).

What to expect in the 3 stages of labor.

Disclaimer: This page is not intended to provide individual medical advice. Always personally seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you have related to your health or medical condition. Never disregard, avoid or delay contacting a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you read here.

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