Early labor, or the latent phase of labor, is the first stage in your birth journey, and it can last anywhere from hours to weeks. So while it’s not the time to rush to the hospital or call your midwife, it is a good sign that you’ll meet your baby soon.
The tricky thing is that every pregnancy is different. So the signs and symptoms of early labor will vary from one woman to another and even from one pregnancy to the next. So how do you know if it’s really happening or if you’re just experiencing 3rd-trimester discomfort?
Happily, we’ve made it easy to find out. Below are the top 20 signs of early labor, ranked from most to least common.
If you can check the top 4 off the list, you’re hours away from newborn cuddles. If you only see signs from the bottom of the list, you may still have a few weeks to wait.
Early Labor Checklist
|Early Labor Sign or Symptom||Description|
|Contractions||Regular tightening of your uterus that may cause discomfort or pain.|
|Rupture of membranes||Breaking of the amniotic sac that holds your baby. It’s often called “waters breaking.”|
|Bloody show||A small amount of blood-tinged mucus discharged from your cervix.|
|Cervical dilation and effacement||Thinning and opening of your cervix, which can be detected by a healthcare provider during a cervical exam.|
|Lower back pain||Persistent pain or cramping in your lower back area.|
|Pelvic pressure||A feeling of pressure or heaviness in your pelvic area.|
|Diarrhea or nausea||Upset stomach or loose bowel movements, sometimes accompanied by nausea or vomiting.|
|An urge to poop||As your baby moves into a good position for birth, their head may press on your bowel, triggering an urge to poop.|
|Menstrual-like cramps||Very early contractions that are weak, irregular, and may feel like menstrual cramps.|
|Increased vaginal discharge||A noticeable increase in vaginal discharge, which may be clear or slightly pink.|
|Lightening||Your baby drops into your pelvis.|
|Braxton Hicks contractions||Irregular, usually painless contractions that can begin several weeks before labor.|
|Lightning crotch||Sharp, burning pain that radiates from your pelvis into your legs.|
|Difficulty sleeping||Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep due to hormonal changes.|
|Increased fatigue||Feeling more tired than usual, even with adequate rest.|
|Increased anxiety||Feeling more anxious or nervous.|
|Loose joints||Throughout pregnancy, your body produces a hormone called relaxin, which loosens your ligaments. As labor nears, you may feel extra wobbly.|
|Nesting instinct||A sudden burst of energy and motivation to prepare for your baby’s arrival, such as cleaning, organizing, and decorating the nursery.|
|Weight gain stalls or drops||Your weight plateaus or falls slightly.|
|Vaginal bleeding||Heavy bleeding or bright red bleeding may indicate a problem and should be reported to your healthcare provider immediately.|
Early Labor Signs Explained
Still unsure if you’re really in early labor? Let’s check out the signs and symptoms in more detail.
In labor, the muscles of your uterus will tighten to dilate your cervix and push your baby out. During early labor, they will become regular, last between 40 and 50 seconds, and come every 10 minutes.
As your labor progresses, they’ll get longer and stronger. When they’re happening every 3 minutes, you’re in active labor.
2. Rupture of Membranes
The rupture of membranes is also known as your water breaking and is usually shown on TV as a dramatic waterfall in an inconvenient location. In reality, only 1 in 10 women experiences a large gush. Most lose their waters in stages or as a constant trickle.
This trickling sensation can cause some confusion as to whether your waters have broken or you’re just experiencing pregnancy-related incontinence. The easiest way to check is by smell. Amniotic fluid is odorless and does not smell like urine.
Once your waters have broken, your baby will ideally need to be born within 36 to 72 hours as they’re more vulnerable to infection. So, call your healthcare provider right away.
3. Bloody Show
During pregnancy, your baby is protected by a mucus plug that forms in the cervical canal. As your cervix dilates, it may loosen and come away, showing up as a blob of pink-streaked mucus in your underwear.
Losing your mucus plug is one of the three key signs your healthcare provider will look for to confirm labor (along with contractions and ruptured membranes). However, it’s not unusual for it to come away early and regenerate. So make sure you have some other signs before you get too excited.
4. Cervical Dilation and Effacement
Healthcare professionals often mention cervical dilation and effacement among the first signs of labor. But what do they mean? And what’s the difference between them?
Cervical effacement, or ripening, is the softening, thinning, and shortening of your cervix. This may be noticeable at 36 weeks into your pregnancy and can be checked with a cervical exam. Your doctor or midwife will usually record your level of effacement as a percentage from 0 to 100.100% means that you are ready to give birth.
Cervical dilation is the opening of your cervix in preparation for allowing your baby to pass through. During the latent phase, your cervix will dilate between 3 and 6 cm. A healthcare professional can check this via an internal exam. You’ll enter active labor between 3 and 7 cm of dilation, and at 10 cm, you can start to push.
If you’re feeling curious and brave, you can even check your dilation yourself! Here’s how.
5. Lower Back Pain
It may surprise you, but you probably won’t only have labor pains in your belly. Most women also feel some cramping in their lower backs, and a quarter will experience severe discomfort.
Sometimes this indicates that your baby is in an occiput posterior or “back to back” position. So it’s a good idea to report lower back pain to your healthcare provider. However, it may just be the way your body experiences labor cramps, especially if you get back pain during your periods.
6. Pelvic Pressure
During the latent phase of labor, your baby’s head will push down on your pelvis even more than usual. This is a sure sign that they’re getting ready for birth and that labor is approaching.
7. Diarrhea or Nausea
Many women experience diarrhea and/or nausea 24 to 48 hours before they go into labor. While it’s not fun, it’s not usually harmful and is just your body’s way of having a clearout to prepare for birth.
I want to tell you that it makes it less likely you’ll poop during delivery, but it may happen anyway. The good news is that it’s completely normal, and your doctor or midwife will be totally unfazed.
8. An Urge to Poop
Fortunately, not every birth causes an upset stomach. But you may still feel an increased need to poop as your baby pushes on your bowel. So, if you’re feeling the need but can’t seem to go, it could be a sign that labor is near.
9. Menstrual-Like Cramps
From around 37 weeks, your body might have small warm-up contractions that feel just like menstrual cramps. They may come and go and will usually stop if you start moving around.
10. Increased Vaginal Discharge
You may notice an increase or change in your vaginal discharge from a week to a few days before labor. This is a sign that your body is lubricating your birth canal to help ease your baby through.
When your baby drops into position in your pelvis, it’s known as “lightening.” This can be seen as a visible drop in your baby bump, but it can also be felt. If you suddenly notice that it’s easier to breathe or that your heartburn has disappeared, it’s a good sign that your baby has dropped and reduced the pressure on your stomach.
This usually occurs 2 to 4 weeks before birth but may only happen once you’re actually in labor.
12. Braxton Hicks Contractions
From around 28 weeks, you may feel practice contractions known as Braxton Hicks or false labor. These are uncomfortable but usually stop when you move and don’t follow a pattern.
While they are part of your body’s preparation for birth, they are non-productive, meaning they won’t cause your cervix to dilate. So they’re generally considered a pre-labor sign.
13. Lightning Crotch
As your baby moves into your pelvis, it may press on your nerves. This can result in a sharp, shooting, or burning pain radiating through your pelvis or down your legs. It’s appropriately known as “lightning crotch” and indicates that your baby has moved into position.
Most women start getting lightning crotch between 34 and 36 weeks into their pregnancy, which can last until delivery.
14. Difficulty Sleeping
Just before going into labor, your body will ramp up its production of oxytocin. This is a fantastic hormone that reduces stress and stimulates contractions.
Unfortunately, it also keeps you awake. So if you’re suddenly struggling to nod off and experiencing some cramps, it may be an oxytocin surge and a sign that you’ve entered the latent phase of labor.
15. Increased Fatigue
Just before birth, your body reaches the maximum capacity a human can endure, your metabolism is working at the level of an athlete, and you’ve been doing it for 40 weeks! So it’s no wonder your energy levels are taking a hit – you’re reaching the end of the world’s longest marathon.
16. Increased Anxiety
As your due date approaches, it’s common to experience increased anxiety levels. Sometimes this is due to pre-birth nerves and a fear of the unknown. But it could also be your subconscious ringing alarm bells that something big is happening in your body, and it’s time to prepare.
Emotional changes are often considered a silent sign of labor and are usually only noticed after the fact.
17. Loose Joints
Relaxin is an incredible hormone that loosens your ligaments and helps your pelvis open for birth. Unfortunately, the side effect is that your joints may become unstable, and your muscles must work harder to support them.
During the latent phase of labor, you’ll feel particularly wobbly around your pelvis and possibly a bit achy too.
18. Nesting Instinct
No one knows why, but around 38 weeks into your pregnancy, you might experience a sudden burst of energy and an urge to get things done. This is known as “nesting.” It’s possibly caused by hormonal changes, like an increase in estrogen or just plain old instinct.
It’s fantastic for giving you the final push to get the nursery ready or finish off work. While many count it as one of the first signs that labor is close, it usually means that you’re still a few weeks away.
19. Weight Gain Stalls or Weight Drops
As labor approaches, you may notice that you stop gaining weight or even lose as much as 1 to 3 lbs. This can be due to a loss of amniotic fluid or just a result of more frequent trips to the bathroom.
20. Vaginal Bleeding
A small amount of blood in your discharge is normal and usually comes from your bloody show. However, heavy or bright red bleeding at any point during your pregnancy could indicate a problem. So, report this symptom to your healthcare provider right away.
What’s the Difference Between Early Labor and Active Labor?
The key difference between early and active labor is that during early labor, you should rest at home because you may still have days to wait.
During active labor, you’re only hours away from meeting your little one, and you should head to the hospital or call your midwife.
Here’s how to figure out which is which:
|Early Labor Signs||Active Labor Signs|
|Contractions are more than 3 minutes apart||Contractions are less than 3 minutes apart|
|You can comfortably talk through your contractions||Your contractions make it difficult to speak|
|Your cervix is less than 3 cm dilated||Your cervix is more than 3 cm dilated|
How Long Does Early Labor Typically Last?
Early labor typically lasts between 8 and 12 hours, but you can experience the symptoms for weeks. It tends to pass faster if you are at home and moving about rather than lying in a hospital bed. This is why, in an uncomplicated pregnancy, you should stay home until active labor begins.
What Should You Do if You Are in Early Labor?
So, if you can’t rush to the hospital, what can you do instead? Here’s a quick list of the best things to do during the latent phase of labor:
- Let Your Birth Partner, Coach, or Doula Know
They won’t need to rush to your side, but it’s probably not the time for a weekend away.
- Keep Moving
Go for short, frequent walks, bounce on a birth ball, or climb the stairs. Keeping your body moving is the best way to progress through labor and help your baby get into a good position.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should wear yourself out. Giving birth is exhausting, as is having a newborn. Take some time to rest and prepare.
Stress can slow labor. Try meditation, breathing, and stretching exercises to relax your body and mind.
- Eat Small, Plain Meals
You will need energy for labor. Don’t starve yourself in an effort to avoid pooping or puking during birth. Instead, eat small, light meals like toast, granola bars, and rice. Avoid anything spicy, fatty, or acidic.
- Stay Hydrated
You will lose a lot of fluid during labor. Prevent dehydration by sipping water.
Don’t be afraid to sleep. It will be your last chance for a while!
Are There Any Ways to Encourage the Progression of Early Labor?
You may want to speed up the latent phase of labor if your waters have broken, you’re uncomfortable, or you’re just plain excited to meet your baby.
Here are the best ways to speed up early labor at home:
- Do light exercise
- Bounce on a birth ball
- Have sex (as long as your waters haven’t broken)
- Stimulate your nipples
- Try Acupressure
In cases where speeding up labor becomes a medical necessity, your healthcare provider can:
- Perform a membrane sweep
- Rupture your membranes
- Induce labor with a pessary or drip
Should You Contact Your Healthcare Provider or Go to the Hospital if You Suspect Early Labor?
You don’t need to contact your healthcare provider or go to the hospital unless:
- You are less than 37 weeks pregnant
- You experience heavy or bright red bleeding
- Your waters are tinged green, smell bad, or contain meconium
- You experience severe headaches or blurred vision
- Your face and hands swell
- Your baby is moving less than usual
- Your baby is moving much more than usual
- You have a fever
These are warning signs of complications and must be checked out.
Note: Some medical professionals may want to see you once your waters have broken, even if they are clear and odorless.
Are There Any Natural or At-Home Remedies for Managing Early Labor Discomfort?
If you’re finding the back pain and contractions of early labor uncomfortable, you can try the following:
- Take a warm bath (as long as your waters haven’t broken)
- Use a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine
- Take paracetamol
- Distract yourself with a movie or game on your phone.
- Try meditation techniques
Remember, as soon as your pain gets too much to deal with at home, it’s time to ask for medical help, even if your contractions are far apart. It could be a sign that you’re having back labor, which will need to be checked.
Calling for help early will also give your medical provider plenty of time to administer your pain relief. Labor tends to go from 0 to 100 in minutes, and a sudden increase in pain is a good sign that you’ve entered the transition phase. This is the final stretch where your cervix dilates the last 2 cm, and you can start to push.
How Do I Know if I’m in Labor?
The length and frequency of your contractions are the only way to confirm that you are in true labor.
The rule is that they should come at intervals of 3 minutes or less, last around a minute, and be strong enough to make it difficult to speak.
How Can You Differentiate Between True Labor and False Labor (Braxton-Hicks Contractions)?
Another problem is telling the difference between true contractions and Braxton Hicks. Here are the key distinctions to look out for:
|True Labor Contractions||False Labor or Braxton Hicks|
|Follow a regular pattern||Are irregular and stop and start|
|Have a consistent duration between 30 and 70 seconds||Vary in length|
|Get steadily stronger||Vary in intensity|
|Unaffected by movement or change in position||Will stop if you move or change position|
|Can sometimes be felt in the back as well as the belly||Can only be felt in the abdomen|
Should You Time Contractions During Early Labor?
Keep an eye on your contractions during early labor, but don’t time them religiously. They could go on for days!
Start timing when you reach around 5 minutes apart. You can do this by checking the clock or even using an app. When they reach 3-minute intervals, it’s time for action.
Can You Have Contractions Without Your Water Breaking?
Yes, your waters may not break until it’s time to push. In rare cases, your baby may even be born inside their amniotic sac. This is called an en caul, mermaid, or veiled birth and only happens in 1 in 80,000 births.
Can Early Labor Signs Vary Between Pregnancies?
Yes, every pregnancy is different, so the symptoms and speed of your early labor will be different too. Generally, your second labor will be much shorter, and your symptoms may come on all at once.
Can Early Labor Stop on Its Own?
Yes, the latent phase can start and stop without warning. This can be frustrating, but take the opportunity to rest. Try to distract yourself with a walk, movie, or nap. You might find that a bit of stress relief gets things going again.
How Can You Tell if Your Cervix Is Dilating?
The loss of your mucus plug and regular contractions are the best indicators that your cervix is dilating. You can check its progress yourself, but generally, it’s a good idea to put dilation out of your mind. Your contractions will do their job, and it’s not uncommon to go from 3 to 10 cm in minutes.
Can You Continue With Normal Activities During Early Labor, or Should You Rest?
It’s safe to continue your everyday activities during latent labor, within reason. Short walks and household tasks are fine. Long walks away from home or strenuous exercise should be avoided.
If you aren’t too excited to rest, take a bath or nap. Just don’t lie still on your back for long periods of time. This will not help your labor progress and will make it difficult for your baby to get into a good position.