Signs of Labor – 10 Early Signs & Symptoms

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“Yes, your transformation will be hard. Yes, you will feel frightened, messed up and knocked down. Yes, you’ll want to stop. Yes, it’s the best work you’ll ever do.”

These are the words of Canadian best-selling author Robin Sharma. The message strikes a profound chord in women who are expecting for the first time.

It can be a challenge to confront your own body and the changes it will go through during pregnancy, so let’s take a look at the initial signs that might occur during the early stages of labor. The more you know about the process, the less of a difficult time it will be. With this knowledge your labor feelings will serve as a learning experience, assisting your body through these phases of change.

Chronological Classification

Before we list and elaborate on the ten most common symptoms that emerge in the time leading up to labor, it is important to know in which order you should expect them to appear. There are four phases in which your body is getting ready for its big moment: pre-labor, early labor, during labor, and post-labor.

Pre-labor

As the term suggests, the first phase is defined by your body going into preparation for labor. At this stage, you might feel:

  • The baby dropping lower.
  • Sporadic tightening of the belly.
  • The urge to make arrangements around your household (nesting).
  • Backache.

Early Labor

When labor is only a few days away, your body will let you know with more obvious signs. In this second phase, you might experience:

  • An increase in clear, pink, and even slightly bloody discharge.
  • Softer bowel movements.
  • An ever-increasing backache.
  • Restlessness and difficulty sleeping.
  • More frequent contractions.

During labor

Things are getting very serious now, and the baby is well on its way. Some signs that labor has probably started are:

  • Contractions are longer, stronger, and closer together. They don’t go away regardless of movement, effort, or showering.
  • Difficulty in walking and talking during contractions.
  • The cervix opening and thinning (which can also take place during an exam with your healthcare provider).

Post-labor

At this point, you should already be in the care of your doctor or midwife, with all the assistance you can get. Right before your baby greets the world:

  • Your water will break (as either a gush or a trickle)
  • You will find it impossible to walk and talk during contractions.
  • The contractions will be happening about 20 minutes or less apart.

10 Signs of Labor Explained

1. Lightening – The Baby Drops

Two to four weeks before labor begins, your baby will settle and “drop” into your pelvis. This is their way to get into position to make their appearance, headfirst.

Frequent bathroom breaks are not unusual, mainly due to the baby’s head pushing down on your bladder. But you should already be used to this feeling from your third semester in. Since your little passenger is moving away from your lungs, you can literally breathe a sigh of relief.

2. Cervical Dilation

In the days (or weeks) before your delivery, your cervix starts to dilate (open) and efface (thin out). Dilation will be measured and tracked by your healthcare provider via an internal exam, during your last routine check-ups before you deliver. The pace of cervical dilation differs from one person to another, so there is no one “correct” pace.

Your cervix is typically about 1.5 inches long before labor, whereas during full dilation it measures 4 inches in length. Both dilation and effacement are direct results of effective uterine contractions.

Contractions help in opening your cervix, which consequently thins out and gets shorter to stretch around the baby’s head. This process is referred to as effacement.

3. Cramps and Back Pain

Cramps in the lower back and groin areas are not uncommon as labor is approaching. This is how your muscles and joints prepare for birth, by stretching and shifting.

There is no physical solution to alleviate these pains in your pelvis and rectal areas, or in your lower back. Just think of your happy place, as these aches are short-lived. Upon your doctor’s recommendation, you may be allowed to take certain painkillers to help alleviate this discomfort.

4. Joints Loosen Up

Amidst all these uncomfortable changes, one that is welcome is an overall loosening of the joints. The body now concentrates on opening up the pelvis to make way for the newborn to come into the world, allowing your joints to catch a long-needed break.

The joints are more relaxed before going into labor. This is due to a hormone called relaxin. As the term somehow implies, this hormone is also responsible for all those moments of clumsiness in the past trimester.

5. Uh-oh…Diarrhea

An unpleasant but normal sign of labor, diarrhea is caused by the muscles in the rectum relaxing, in order to prepare for birth. Diarrhea during pregnancy is caused by the release of hormones called prostaglandins.

The body needs to empty out the bowels in order for the uterus to contract efficiently. Avoiding diarrhea at this stage is nearly impossible, so your best bet is to stay as hydrated as possible and try to stay close to your bathroom during the last one or two days before labor.

6. Weight Gain Stops

One of the most common changes your body will experience as you approach labor is a settling—or even loss—of weight. Because your baby is gaining weight in order to be healthy, you are losing amniotic fluid. Additionally, all those frequent bathroom breaks and increased activity levels are sure to simulate a good workout session! Unless your weight takes a nosedive here, this is an expected part of the pregnancy process that shouldn’t raise any alarm bells.

7, Nesting

While some mothers feel unusually tired during the pre-labor period, others have a tireless urge and a splurge of energy to prepare the surrounding “nest” for the arrival of the baby.

If you experience fatigue as labor is looming near, obey your body and rest as much as it tells you to. You have likely gone on for too long without much rest, so it is important to take frequent naps if you need them.

If you are feeling energized, don’t overdo it. Tendencies to clean the baby’s room, wash their bed sheets and clothes, and cook meals in preparation are common, but make sure you don’t tire yourself out. You need to preserve your energy for your little one’s birth and those exciting days that follow.

To make the process of preparing for your little one’s arrival a bit easier, we’ve put together a few helpful lists of necessities that you’ll want to get ready in the days leading up to their birth. From cribs and car seats, to breast pumps and formula, to baby monitors and baby gates, we can help you find everything you need to give your baby the good start in life that they deserve.

8. Bloody Show

Protecting the cervix, as a seal for the uterus, is a plug of mucus that comes away right before labor starts. Texture-wise, it is similar to the mucus secreted in the nose, except it is pink because it contains blood throughout. This is called a bloody show. Sometimes it comes out as one large piece, but sometimes it emerges as many smaller pieces. It is normal to lose a little blood during the bloody show. This is an indication that the cervix is starting to open, followed by labor after a few days, or sooner. As long as the blood isn’t excessive, a bloody show is normal and not a sign of any complications.

9. Contractions

When it comes to contractions, you might experience frequent “false alarms” at this stage of pregnancy. Sometimes the muscles in your uterus tighten in preparation for the moment they have to push the baby out, and these “practice contractions” are called Braxton-Hicks contractions. These can occur weeks or even months before labor.

This table provided by March of Dimes classifies some characteristics that will help you determine whether you are feeling contractions that are a sign of impending birth, or false Braxton-Hicks contractions.

Additional Comparisons Between the Contraction Types

  • Real contractions become stronger if you tend to be more active, whereas Braxton-Hicks contractions ease up.
  • Changing positions will not shoo real contractions away.
  • Real contractions become more frequent and painful as time goes by, whereas Braxton-Hicks contractions come and go without any sign of progression.

It is recommended to call your health care provider when your contractions last at least 60 seconds and occur more frequently than every 5 minutes, following a regular pattern. The best advice will probably be to stay at home until the contractions start to become more frequent—until contractions are telling you that you’re ready to give birth, there’s not much you can do about them.

In order to feel the difference between the two types of contractions, it is a good idea to time them for an entire hour. Jot down how much time goes by between the start of each contraction, as well as how strong each one feels. Walking or moving around are also good ways to determine how the contractions respond. Once you’ve got some data, it should be easier for you to tell true contractions apart from false ones.

10. Water Breaks

One of the final and most visible signs of labor is when your water breaks. However, contrary to what we see in movies, statistics show that only 15 percent of women start their labor this way.

Because your baby has been developing in amniotic fluid (also known as the bag of waters) in your uterus, the breaking of the bag of waters can manifest itself as either as strong a feeling as a dam breaking loose, or as weak as a mere trickle. Amniotic fluid can be a little bloodstained when it first comes out, but one thing that distinguishes it from urine is its colorless appearance and odorless absence of smell.

The usual time it takes to go into labor after your water breaks is about 24 hours. Your midwife or healthcare provider should be notified about the water breaking as soon as it happens, so they can take the necessary measures to make sure everything goes according to plan.

Coping with Signs of Labor

Needless to say, the most important guidance during these last stages before labor is the guidance of your doctor, midwife, or healthcare provider. If you would like to elaborate on the whole process, we recommend this book for further reading.

You should call your healthcare provider at any time of the day (don’t feel bad about it, they know these situations come with the job) whenever you feel any slightly irregular symptoms, that may spring from those listed above. There are a few remedies and tricks to get over those painful moments before seeking assistance, but even if you choose these methods, you should still clear them with your healthcare provider.

Unprescribed but Useful Methods for Inducing Labor

Believe it or not, sex, spicy food, and acupuncture can really help you during these trying times. Research shows that just over half of all of women try unprescribed methods for inducing labor in the last week of their pregnancy.

Out of these women, half attempted to speed up labor with intercourse or other sexual stimulation, and almost a quarter tried ingesting spicy foods. It’s unclear whether or not such methods actually work, but most of them are safe and risk-free. Acupuncture is a less common unprescribed method, but if your healthcare provider gives you the green light, it can have its advantages.

When Labor Starts

Once labor has started, it’s only a matter of time before you give birth. That being said, there are several ways that you can ease your mind and bring yourself comfort during this key period.

  • Walking and moving around helps
  • Hydration is crucial, especially sports drinks like Gatorade, known as isotonic drinks
  • Snacks are welcome, if you are not feeling sick
  • Acetaminophen is typically a safe medicine to take during labor, but clear this with your doctor beforehand and make sure to read the instructions on the label before ingesting.
  • A warm bath not only feels good, but helps the muscles relax, hydrates the body, and eliminates the stress that was built up as a result of all your recent bodily changes.
  • Practice your relaxation and breathing exercises once contractions start getting very strong and painful. This can be achieved with the help of your birth partner. In fact, have them throw in a nice and smooth backrub as well. This helps to relieve the pain.
  • Take frequent naps, and be sure to get a good night’s sleep each night.

Conclusion

The labor process is often stressful, but this guide should help ease your mind about a lot of what you’re going through during the last days and weeks of pregnancy. All of the symptoms discussed here are normal, but you should constantly keep your doctor or midwife on your radar during this period if any of them worsen unexpectedly or if you have any other questions.

Do not hesitate to call a medical professional if you experience any of the following:

  • Bleeding or bright red discharge (not pink or brown).
  • Water breaks—especially if it looks green or brown. This could indicate that the baby’s first stool (meconium), is present. It is dangerous for your baby to ingest it during birth.
  • You have a blurred or double vision, severe headache or sudden swelling. These are all symptoms of high blood pressure (preeclampsia), which requires medical attention.
  • Contractions are about four minutes apart, and last about a minute, in a one-hour interval.
  • You feel the baby’s movements have become less frequent.
  • You have other concerns about yourself or the baby.

Your baby will let you know when they are ready to meet you. You should not fear the days before birth, but rather try to reduce your stressors and enjoy giving yourself a break whenever possible. Take hot baths, watch movies, take naps, and do whatever else it takes to get through this stage as comfortably as possible. Every birth is different, but knowledge (especially about your body and your baby) is power. This sort of power will make you a better parent during these trying moments, so make sure you have the knowledge required to make the best of your child’s birth.