Birth Dates

11 Signs & Symptoms of Early Labor: Plus Our Top Tips to Stay Comfortable at the End!

A newborn baby

Those final days as you near your due date can feel like time is passing in slow motion. It’s easy to feel impatient…because you are so ready to meet your baby! 

It can be even more frustrating waiting for labor to begin, especially if you don’t know what to expect. But as you near your due date, you may begin to experience new sensations in your body that make you pause and think “Is this it? Am I going into labor?”

Although you won’t be able to know exactly how your labor will unfold…having an idea of the early signs and symptoms of labor can help you go from doubt to confidence. It won’t be long before you exclaim to your partner, “Baby it’s time!”

Here are 11 early signs and symptoms of early labor — plus some of our top tips for how to stay comfortable!

First Stage of Labor

Labor is unique for each person — sometimes it can be over in a matter of hours while for others it can take days. But no matter how your labor unfolds, it can be helpful to understand the typical sequence of events that will take place as your labor begins.

Labor is divided into 3 phases:

  1. Early and active labor
  2. Delivery of your baby
  3. Delivery of the placenta

The first stage of labor is usually the longest as your body begins to have contractions that gradually open, soften, and thin your cervix. This will allow your baby to enter the birth canal and make their appearance into the world!

It can be helpful to look at at early labor as two distinct phases (Mayo Clinic): 

  1. Early labor: This is when your cervix begins to open and efface (thin) through regular contractions. For first time moms, this phase can last from hours to days…this is why it’s so important to be prepared with your partner to know how to get through this stage at home. Early labor will usually be shorter for your subsequent births, which is cool news!
  2. Active labor: During active labor, your cervix will open from 6 to 10 cm. Contractions will become stronger and more close together as your body prepares for your baby to descend into the birth canal. You may experience more pain, nausea, and leg cramps. 

As your due date approaches, you anticipate the start of new labor sensations. But how do you know if you’re in early labor or you’re just experiencing some other type of pregnancy symptom? 

That’s where it can be helpful to know the signs and symptoms that your body is preparing to begin early labor. Let’s take a look at some of the first signs you could experience. That way you’ll know early labor is just around the corner!

Signs of Pre-Labor (Things are changing, but it’s not quite time yet!)

Your body will start to show you some signs that labor is getting closer, but still maybe two to four weeks away. But everyone’s labor is different! These signs could also happen 24-48 hours before your labor begins. What you need to remember is these are totally normal sensations and to be welcomed after 37 weeks.

Pay attention to your body and just remember that your pregnancy and labor will be unique and none of these early signs necessarily mean that your baby is coming that day. It just means things are starting to shift and progress is beginning. 

So as much as you have seen the movies and labor come on crazy strong…it’s unlikely. More often we have signs of Early Labor that are not that entertaining! And as much as we wish there was…there’s no exact timetable for labor! So go to the movies, shop at Target and go on some last single date nights while you wait for real labor to begin!

Here are 7 early signs of labor:

  1. Cramping and back pain

As your muscles and joints shift to prepare for labor, you may start to feel some cramping and pain in your lower back, pelvis, and groin. These cramps may feel similar to period cramps.

  1. Pelvic pressure as your baby drops

Your baby will start to get ready for birth and move lower into your pelvis. This process is often called “dropping” or lightening. The good news is that your baby is moving away from your lungs, which should make it easier to breathe! But they may put some more pressure on your bladder, so stay near a restroom in case you need more frequent bathroom breaks.

  1. Loose feeling joints

Your whole body may begin to feel more loose as the hormone relaxin helps to relax the ligaments in your body. This helps your pelvis to open more to make room for your baby to safely pass through. 

  1. Loose stools/Diarrhea

Although unpleasant, diarrhea is another good sign that labor is nearing! This is due to hormonal changes leading up to birth. And if you are worried about pooping during birth…this is the body’s natural wisdom to clear out and make room for your baby. Isn’t your body so smart?! Try to stay hydrated to keep your body replenished and ready for birth. 

  1. Changes in vaginal discharge

Even if your mucus plug stays intact, you may notice some changes in your vaginal discharge. It could be more watery or more thick and sticky. It may also be a slightly pink color. All of these changes are normal! 

  1. Lose mucous plug

During pregnancy, there is a plug of mucus in your cervix that protects your uterus. This will detach and can come out in one large piece — or possibly several smaller ones and just feel like increased discharge. It’s not a medical concern and it totally normal. Your mucous plug can be bloody, reddish or brownish…and truly just looks like a big snotty booger. 

  1. Fatigue and nesting instinct

You may feel an urge to get your house cleaned and organized for your baby’s arrival. This could look like putting the finishing touches on the baby’s nursery, preparing some extra meals to put in the freezer, or organizing any clutter around the house. Just be careful not to overdo it — you’ll need your energy and strength for labor!

If you experience any of these signs, that means your body is getting ready. But be patient and don’t get too excited. Becoming too excited or jumping to your birth place too soon can stop your labor from progressing. 

You could have these symptoms for a few hours or days. So be chill in this stage and bake some cookies instead of rushing to the hospital. Do make sure your hospital bag is packed, caregivers for your older children are “on call,” and you and your birthing team are all on the same page for your big day.

Signs of Real Labor

Hopefully if you’ve experienced some of the symptoms above, you’re prepared and ready for your labor to begin. The only way to know if you are truly in labor is if there is cervical change. However, you’ve  likely started early labor when you notice any of the following 4 signs:

  1. Onset of contractions

The onset of labor comes with strong and regular contractions. A contraction is when your uterus muscles tighten and close like a fist. When this wave-like sensation happens, your cervix is pulled upward and starts to open. These can feel like strong period cramps that just get stronger over a period of time. (Are you wanting a natural birth? Make sure to do these 5 things to prepare for to give birth naturally).

You’ll know you’re experiencing real labor contractions if:

  • They come at regular intervals, usually 5-10 minutes apart, and will begin to get closer together the more active the labor becomes, 2-3 minutes apart.
  • There is a noticeably start, peak and end to the contraction. No questioning if it’s a contraction – you know! 
  • Your contractions last 30 seconds or more in length.
  1. Bloody show

As your cervix begins to open and thin, you could notice some blood-tinged discharge or   when you wipe after washroom breaks. This is great news! This shows that your cervix is changing and you are progressing. 

  1. Belly and lower back pain

You may also begin to feel pain in your lower abdominal area or lower back. This discomfort comes with your contractions and will increase as you progress. If your baby is in a posterior position, the lower back ache can be experienced in and out of contractions. Make sure your partner is prepared to use back pain relief techniques to help ease this discomfort. Get your partner the skills they need to be your best labor coach in our interactive and hands on Birth Dates course

  1. Must stop for the contraction 

Labor contractions that become increasingly hard to talk or move through are really good indicators that these sensations are the real deal and you are on the path of meeting your baby! Real labor contractions to pay attention to are ones that have a clear beginning and clear end, and take effort to relax through.

True Labor vs. “False Labor”: How to Know the Difference

You may experience “false” labor pains also known as Braxton-Hicks contractions that can lead you to think, “This is it!” 

But these are only “practice” contractions that are helping your body to prepare for the real thing. Braxton-Hicks contractions will feel like an uncomfortable, but painless tightening in your uterus. Your abdomen will become very hard and an abnormal shape. Want to know what Braxton Hicks are and what they feel like? Check out our resource page on our Guide to Braxton Hicks here.

You’ll know these aren’t real contractions because they are: 

  • Irregular in intensity and usually last about 15 to 30 seconds, but sometimes as long as two minutes
  • Infrequent
  • Unpredictable
  • Non-rhythmic
  • Happen only after physical exertion or intercourse
  • More uncomfortable than painful 
  • They do not increase in intensity or frequency
  • They taper off and then disappear altogether

Should I Time Every Contraction?

If things are mild and easy…don’t time waste your energy and time your contractions. Timing things too early makes you feel more anxious and like things are taking a long time. Remember the “a watched pot never boils” saying? We encourage parents to time contractions when they feel strong and are hard enough that you need to stop for them and breathe. 

Our favourite app to time contractions is Full Term. Super easy to use and is free for your entire labor, unlike others who charge you after a certain amount of contractions! 

Labor Started? What Do I Do Now?

Yeah you are in labor! Give yourself a high five and carry on. Labor takes time. Get some rest, eat snacks, snuggle with your partner and you can do all of this at home. No need to rush into your birth place just because you are having contractions. Laboring at home has been shown to reduce interventions, shorten labor and reduce pain. 

Our Birth Dates self-paced course teaches you and your partner all about what to do in early and active labor at home and when you should transfer to your birth place. Rushing to the hospital is one of the most common mistakes that people make, and it’s because they don’t know the realities of how labor works. I have taught over 1900 couples on exactly when to get to the hospital on time, not too early, not too late. So get educated with Birth Dates and have a plan together of what to do when your labor starts!

How to Stay Comfortable During Early Labor

One of the best ways you can prepare for labor during pregnancy is to learn the different comfort measures that will help you to stay calm and relaxed during contractions. This is often my client’s favorite lesson in my childbirth class, Birth Dates. I go into tons of detail to teach hands-on tools, comfort measures and positions to reduce pain in labor! 

Here are some of my top tips for what to do in early labor: 

  1. Ignore it. As labor begins, you’ll mostly be able to function and go about your day as normal. Take advantage of this! It’s ok to pay attention to your body, but don’t get too wrapped up in timing your contractions. Your body will let you know when it’s time to focus as you move into the later stages of labor. 
  1. Rest. If you can, take a nap or try to get a full night’s sleep. You’ll need your rest and strength as you head into labor. This goes for the partner too!
  1. Eat and drink normally. You’re going to need lots of energy during labor — so try to eat and drink as normally as you can. This will provide your body with the nutrients it needs!
  1. Find distractions. Try to keep yourself busy to keep your mind off things. Go for a neighborhood walk, bing watch a series on Hulu, go out for an indulgent milkshake…this will help you pass the time without wearing yourself out!
  1. Find comfortable positions that encourage labor. Try sitting on a birthing ball, lying on your side, or using the Miles Circuit to get your baby in an optimal position for birth!
  1. Ask for help when you need it. Ask your partner to give you a gentle massage in between contractions. This intimate touch can be wonderful to help ease any discomfort you’re experiencing while also helping you to relax — which helps labor to progress!

It’s also helpful to put these tools into practice during your third trimester. During Class #5 of my Birth Dates self paced Birth Class, we go through a full labor rehearsal, so you and your partner can practice your coping skills and connection to experience how ready you are to give birth together.

The Best Way to Prepare for Labor? 

If you and your partner want to prepare for a confident birth experience… one of the best ways to do this is by taking childbirth class! This can make the difference between having a stressful, painful experience… and one that has less pain, fewer interventions, and allows you to feel safe, loved and connected as you give birth TOGETHER!

I’d love to help you and your partner to learn about birth in a fun, engaging way. Here’s where you can ditch your fears about birth and actually enjoy your labor and birth experience. Sign up for Birth Dates today!

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Sherilee Peters

Sherilee Peters

Owner and founder of Baby Nest Birth Services for over 18 years she has been supporting parents to have empowering births and postpartum experiences. Growing up on a recreational farm in Canada watching animals give birth from a young age is where she had her first realization of how natural the birth process could be. She is a mother of two, a Birth & Postpartum Doula, a Bradley Method Birth instructor and certified placenta specialist in the Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR areas.

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