How does labor start? Water breaking? Contractions? Those are both sure signs of labor, but sometimes, the signs labor is near are more subtle. A woman’s body almost always gives her the signals she needs and the inner wisdom to recognize them; however, to help you understand them, we’ve compiled a list of the most common signs of labor.
Learn about the different stages of labor, the differences between true and false labor, the signs and symptoms of both early and active labor, and what to do when you think your baby is coming!
What Is Labor?
Labor, more commonly called childbirth, is the experience of delivering your baby from the warm and cozy home of your uterus to the outside world. You’ve probably been excitedly and anxiously awaiting this moment for quite some time, but it’s important to understand that labor is a slow, multistep process that’s unique for each woman and each pregnancy. That said, labor tends to follow a general pattern for most women. Knowing about what’s likely to happen can help you prepare for the big day ahead.
When Does Labor Start?
Although your due date is usually calculated according to the average length of pregnancy, which is 40 weeks for a full-term pregnancy, don’t expect your baby to arrive on the dot. A pregnancy can last between 41 and 42 weeks, which is referred to as late term, and even last longer than 42 weeks, which is called postterm.
It's also not uncommon for labor to begin earlier than 40 weeks, such as at week 38 or 39. Going into labor before 37 weeks of pregnancy is called preterm labor. This sometimes stops on its own without leading to preterm birth but will always need immediate medical attention.
If your due date has come and gone, you may be eager for labor to begin. You might have heard of traditional methods of inducing labor, such as drinking castor oil, which has not shown to be effective. In fact, experts don’t recommend trying any kind of home remedy. So, if you’re concerned labor hasn’t started yet, the best thing to do is consult your healthcare provider.
Stages of Labor
Childbirth is broken down into three stages:
Labor. This first stage is divided into two phases, early labor and active labor. The main differences between the two phases are how your contractions feel and the timing of your contractions. Early labor is characterized by mild contractions, whereas active labor has stronger, more regular contractions.
Pushing and delivery of your baby. This stage is often shorter than the previous stage; however, this is the stage that requires more work from you, as you’ll be pushing your baby out.
Delivery of the placenta. This is the shortest stage. You may still feel contractions, which help separate the placenta from the uterine wall and then move the placenta into the birth canal. A few pushes can help you deliver it, and once your uterus fully contracts your labor is complete.
Signs and Symptoms of Labor
Labor is a different experience for every woman and can vary from pregnancy to pregnancy for the same woman. But there are some similarities. Here are the 10 most common signs of labor in most women:
1. Nesting—a sudden burst of energy
2. Lightening—a feeling that the baby has dropped
3. Contractions that range from mild (during early labor) to strong (during active labor)
4. Effacement—thinning of the cervix
5. Dilation—widening the opening of the cervix
6. Loss of the mucus plug
7. Water breaking
8. Leg cramping
9. Back pain or pressure
Learn more about these signs and symptoms of labor in the following two sections, which cover the two phases (early and active labor) of stage 1 of labor.
Signs and Symptoms of Early Labor
Early labor can be unpredictable in terms of duration. It may be hours or even days before you progress to active labor, especially if this is your first baby. This time will usually become shorter with subsequent deliveries. Until your contractions become more regular and more intense, or your water breaks, try to stay relaxed—active labor will eventually start.
Although every pregnancy is different, you may experience the following signs of early labor, some more subtle than others:
Nesting. It’s perfectly normal to experience a sudden surge of energy in the days or weeks before labor. You might also have the urge to “nest” and prepare your home for the baby. Although nesting can begin any time during your pregnancy, many women experience it just before labor. Don’t overexert yourself—try to take it easy.
Lightening. Your baby drops lower into your pelvis in the weeks, days, or hours before labor. This is called lightening because you may feel lighter, and find breathing a little easier, after the baby drops and isn’t pressing on your diaphragm.
Mild contractions. You may feel mild contractions that occur 5 to 15 minutes apart and last for between 60 and 90 seconds. The pain or pressure that you feel may start in your back and move down to your abdomen. The contractions may be less than five minutes apart by the end of early labor.
Effacement. Your cervix thins, softens, and shortens completely before vaginal delivery. You may feel mild contractions or nothing at all.
Dilation. Your cervix begins to widen and open until it’s fully dilated. Dilation happens slowly at first but speeds up once you’re in active labor.
Loss of your mucus plug. You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked vaginal discharge sometimes called a bloody show. This is what sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It often appears several days before labor begins, although it’s not always noticeable.
Signs and Symptoms of Active Labor
Active labor is when things start to really happen, and it’s when you should head to the hospital. Active labor can last from four to eight hours, and sometimes even longer. By this time your cervix may likely be dilated from 6 to 10 centimeters, and you will notice stronger signs and symptoms that you’re in labor:
Water breaking. The fluid-filled amniotic sac that surrounded your baby during pregnancy may rupture several hours before labor or during labor. You may feel a discharge of watery fluid that comes as a trickle or a gush.
Strong and regular contractions. As your uterus begins to contract more frequently before active labor, you may feel pain in your back or pelvis. The contractions will be more regular and closer together, as close as 3 minutes, with each one lasting around 45 seconds. Timing your contractions can help you keep track of your progress.
Leg cramps. You may feel your legs cramp when you go into active labor.
Back pain or pressure. You could experience backache or a heavy, achy feeling as the pressure on your back increases.
Nausea. Some women feel nauseated as active labor begins.
What to Do During Early Labor
In early labor, with only a few signs of labor, you may not need to go to the hospital just yet. Labor can take a lot of time, and you’ll may be more comfortable, and perfectly safe, staying
at home. If at any point you’re concerned about what you’re experiencing, reach out to your healthcare provider.
Realizing you’re in labor can bring feelings ranging from excitement to disbelief or apprehension. Try to stay calm and focused. Arrange to have your partner or friend with you to help record labor symptoms, keep you company, and get you to the hospital when the time comes.
You can also try to ease any discomfort by
getting up and going for a walk
trying some relaxation or breathing techniques you learned in your prenatal class
taking a shower or a bath.
When to Call Your Healthcare Provider and Go to the Hospital
If you have any doubt about whether you’re in labor, call your healthcare provider for advice.
Be sure to call your healthcare provider or go to the hospital if you’re experiencing any of these signs:
Your water has broken but you’re not experiencing any contractions, and especially if the fluid is green or brown, or has a foul odor
You notice bright red vaginal bleeding (not pale pink or dark brown discharge of the mucus plug) coupled with abdominal pain
You have a headache, vision problems, or sudden swelling—all of which may indicate a complication called preeclampsia
You’re in constant severe pain without any feelings of relief between contractions
You feel your baby move less
You believe you may be in preterm labor.