How to Recognize Early Labor Signs and Key Things to Do

Many a pregnant mom has wondered how just how labor will feel, how long it will take and how to know whether it’s the real deal or just a false alarm. It’s hard to predict the answers to all those questions, since every birth is different, but knowing what labor is and what signs to look out for will help provide clues that it’s almost time to meet your baby!

What is labor?
Labor is the process of childbirth, starting with contractions of the uterus and ending with the delivery of the baby.

If you’re like a lot of pregnant moms, you’re probably wondering how you’ll know for sure that you’re in labor. Look out for these 10 signs of labor that tell you baby’s on the way:

  • Baby “drops”
  • Cervix dilates
  • Cramps and increased back pain
  • Loose-feeling joints
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight gain stops
  • Fatigue and “nesting instinct”
  • Vaginal discharge changes color and consistency
  • Stronger, more frequent contractions
  • Water breaks
  1. Your baby “drops”
    If you’re a first-time mom your baby will typically start to drop, or descend into your pelvis, a few weeks before labor begins (usually around two to four weeks before, but it can vary). In subsequent births, this “lightening” doesn’t often happen until you’re truly in labor. Your baby is getting into position to make his exit, ideally with the head down and low. You might feel like you’re waddling even more than you have been up until this point — and you may still be taking frequent bathroom breaks like you’ve probably been doing in third trimester because baby’s head is now pushing down on your bladder. The good news is that you have a bit more breathing room, since your little one is moving away from your lungs.
  1. Your cervix dilates
    Your cervix, too, is starting to prepare for birth: It starts to dilate (open) and efface (thin out) in the days or weeks before you deliver. At your weekly check-ups in the home stretch of your pregnancy, your provider may measure and track dilation and effacement via an internal exam. But everyone progresses differently, so don’t be discouraged if you’re dilating slowly or not at all yet.
  2. You feel more cramps and increased back pain
    Especially if this is not your first pregnancy, you may feel some crampiness and pain in your lower back and groin as labor nears. Your muscles and joints are stretching and shifting in preparation for birth.
  3. Your joints feel looser
    Throughout your pregnancy, the hormone relaxin has made your ligaments loosen up a little (it’s also responsible for your potential bouts of clumsiness this past trimester). Before you go into labor, you may notice that the joints all over your body feel a bit less tight and more relaxed. It’s just nature’s way of opening up your pelvis for your little passenger to make his way into the world.
  4. You have diarrhea
    Just as the muscles in your uterus are relaxing in preparation for birth, so too are other muscles in your body — including those in the rectum. And that can lead to diarrhea, that pesky little labor symptom you may well have experienced at other times during pregnancy. Though annoying, it’s completely normal; stay hydrated and remember it’s a good sign!
  5. You stop gaining weight (or lose pounds)
    Weight gain often levels off at the very end of pregnancy. Some moms-to-be even lose a couple of pounds! This is normal and won’t affect your baby’s birth weight. He’s still gaining, but you’re losing due to lower levels of amniotic fluid, more potty breaks, and perhaps even increased activity.
  6. You feel extra tired … or you have an urge to nest
    Wait a minute, is this the third trimester or the first? Between the active bladder and the exhaustion, sometimes you can feel like you’ve traveled backwards in time. That super-size belly, along with the smooshed bladder, can make it tough to get a good night’s sleep during the last days and weeks of pregnancy. Pile on those pillows and take naps during the day if you possibly can! That is, unless you’re feeling the opposite of fatigued: Some moms get a burst of energy as the birth-day nears, and can’t resist the compelling urge to clean and organize everything in sight. That’s okay, as long as you don’t overdo it!
  1. You lose your mucous plug and your vaginal discharge changes color and consistency
    You may also notice the loss of your mucous plug — the cork sealing off your uterus from the outside world. It can come out in one large piece (it looks similar to the mucus in your nose) or lots of little ones, though you may not get a glimpse of it at all and some women don’t lose it before delivery. In the last days before labor, you’ll likely see increased and/or thickened vaginal discharge. This thickened, pinkish discharge is called bloody show and is a good indication that labor is imminent, but without contractions or dilation of three to four centimeters, labor could still be a few days away.
  2. You feel stronger, more frequent contractions
    Contractions are an early sign of active labor — except when they aren’t. You can experience Braxton Hicks contractions (or “practice contractions”) for weeks and even months before delivery. You’ll feel their pinch as the muscles in your uterus tighten in preparation for their big moment: pushing that baby out. How can you tell the difference between real and false labor contractions? Look for these signs of real labor:

If you’re active, contractions get stronger instead of easing up
If you change position, contractions don’t go away
Contractions progress: They get more frequent and more painful, and sometimes fall into a regular pattern. Each one won’t necessarily be more painful or longer than the one before it, but their intensity tends to build over time as labor progresses. Frequency doesn’t always increase in a regular pattern, either, but it does gradually increase.
Early real labor contractions could feel like strong menstrual cramps, stomach upset or lower abdominal pressure. Pain could be in the lower abdomen or both there and the lower back, and it could radiate down into the legs. The location of the pain isn’t as reliable an indicator of true vs. practice contractions, though, because Braxton Hicks contractions can also be felt in all those places.

  1. Your water breaks
    While movies would have you think you’ll learn you’re in labor only when your water breaks (in the middle of a romantic dinner date at a busy restaurant, of course), that’s a very unlikely scenario. It’s actually one of the final signs of labor most women experience — and it happens in only around 15 percent of births or fewer. So don’t count on it as your only labor sign!

Still feel like you won’t know when to announce “It’s time!” and get ready to meet your baby? Try not to stress about it. You’ll be seeing your doctor or midwife frequently now, and she’ll help you spot all the important clues.

Am I going into labor? Should I call the doctor?
If you think you’re going into labor, your practitioner should have advised you on what to do when your contractions become regular: “Call me when they’re coming about five minutes apart for at least an hour,” for example. Contractions won’t all be exactly spaced, but if they are becoming pretty consistent, more painful and longer (usually around 30 to 70 seconds), it’s time to check in with your doc.

If you think you might be in labor but aren’t sure, get on the phone. Your provider can advise you on what’s going on. Don’t feel embarrassed or worry about calling outside of office hours (your doctor or midwife knew this would happen when she got into the baby-catching business!).

You should always call if:

You experience any bleeding or bright-red discharge (not brown or pinkish).
Your water breaks — especially if the fluid looks green or brown; this could be a sign that meconium is present (which is your newborn’s first stool; it can be dangerous if your baby ingests it during birth).
You experience blurred or double vision, a severe headache, or sudden swelling. These can all be symptoms of preeclampsia, which is characterized by pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and requires medical attention.
Natural ways to help labor along
Not in labor just yet … but full-term and itching to get things moving along? There are a few natural tricks that may help induce labor that you can try at home yourself, including walking, sex, spicy food and acupuncture. That said, there’s not a lot of research to back any of these methods up, and you should talk to your doctor first before trying anything intended to prompt baby’s birthday.