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9 Signs of Labor: Early Signs & Symptoms of Labor

Medically Reviewed by Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM
These early labor signs might be a hint that your baby is on the way.

Is your pregnancy coming to an end? You might be wondering when and how labor will start.

It’s completely normal for a first-time mom to have countless questions about labor and delivery. We know because we’ve been there! As your due date gets closer, you start looking for any hint of the big moment approaching.

But what exactly are the early signs and symptoms of labor? Knowing what to look for could help you prepare for the upcoming arrival of your precious bundle.

In this article, our medical experts will help you recognize the true signs of early labor so you can know for certain when the big moment has finally arrived.

Key Takeaways

  • Early labor signs include a lower-sitting belly, nesting or resting, weight gain stopping, and increased discomfort.
  • Cervical changes, such as dilation and effacement, are essential indicators of labor progress.
  • Differentiating between Braxton Hicks contractions and real contractions helps determine if labor has started.
  • Losing the mucus plug, experiencing diarrhea, and water breaking are additional signs that labor is approaching.

Early Signs of Labor

The nine months of pregnancy can sometimes feel like so much more. The first trimester can often be filled with morning sickness. The second may feel like a breeze — but then the third hits, and some of us go back to square one.

But some of those discomforts, particularly in the last month, could signify something bigger is happening. Your baby and body may be preparing for the special day.

Here are nine early signs you may be feeling already:

1. Lower-sitting Belly

All women carry their babies differently. Some have a high, protruding belly, while others are not so obvious. If you’re like me — you reach full growth capacity around six months, then spend the last three hearing “any day now, huh?”

However, as your due date closes in, your baby will, or should, turn head-down. This usually happens before 32 weeks. Your baby will then begin making a slow descent into the pelvis.

This “dropping” is sometimes referred to as “lightening,” and it may bring relief for some women. The baby might have been putting pressure on your lungs and stomach for several months, causing mild shortness of breath and heartburn. As your little one lowers, some of that pressure may ease.

The “waddle” is a signature pregnancy walk that most women master toward their due date. When your baby drops lower into the pelvis, it might be impossible to avoid the duck walk. Comfortable shoes are a definite advantage at this time, so ditch the heels for a while.

You may also feel the need to urinate more frequently. Think about all that extra pressure your bladder is being put under as your little one kicks and bumps and rests on it (1).

2. Nesting or Resting

As we close in on the finish line, the pregnancy can take two turns: fatigue or extra energy. You may experience waves of both.

“Nesting” is a real thing; it can make pregnant women go full power with cleaning, organizing, and overall preparation for the baby. Where did the energy come from? It could be from the extra adrenaline your body produces during the last weeks.

However, resist the urge to give in to every single craving to nest. Now is the prime time to rest up for labor (2).

You might be feeling the complete opposite and be totally exhausted. Feeling drained and bouts of crying are just two ways fatigue shows up.

Listen to your body and give yourself permission to slow down. Take naps, delight in warm baths, or find other avenues for pampering yourself.

Do what you need to do to feel good. Try asking a family member for help or let Daddy take care of the nesting to-do list.

3. Weight Gain Has Stopped

When pregnant, we typically gain weight. It’s natural and is something we can’t avoid. Some women gain a lot, while others gain just a little.

But as you venture toward the end of the final trimester, you may notice a difference. You might stop gaining weight as you reach “full capacity.”

Some women will even lose a few pounds. You may feel concerned to see the numbers drop, but don’t worry. Just because you’re losing weight doesn’t mean the baby is too.

Your peanut will still be gaining as they should. If you’re losing more than a few pounds or are feeling concerned, talk to your health care provider.

These are a few things that can contribute to weight loss during those last weeks:

  • The amniotic fluid is slowly decreasing: A slight decrease in amniotic fluid is common toward the end of pregnancy.
  • More frequent toilet visits: As your baby constantly presses on your bladder, you’ll urinate more often, which may cause weight loss.
  • You are in full-on nesting mode: You may burn a few extra calories while preparing for your baby’s arrival (3).

4. Increased Discomfort

Between running — or waddling — to the bathroom, nesting, and napping, you might also be experiencing general discomfort.

Your belly can feel like it’s going to burst at any given moment, and now, your back is feeling the pain. You may also be having more “Braxton Hicks.” These are irregular cramps or contractions of the uterus.

As the due date comes into sight, the discomfort can become unbearable and interfere with your much-needed sleep. Here are a few tricks we’ve found helpful:

  • Sleep on your left side: This will increase blood flow to your uterus and help nutrients easily reach your baby.
  • Keep knees bent: Position a pillow between your knees to support your hips and spine.
  • Support belly/back: Place a maternity pillow under your belly to relieve pressure (4).

Don’t get me started on heartburn, that burning sensation you get after eating — especially during pregnancy. Why does that always have to get worse when you want to sleep?

We were able to relieve the fire with these helpful tips:

  • Drink cold milk: Especially before bed.
  • Elevate: Raising your upper body with pillows can help during the night.

5. Changes in the Cervix

During the last month of pregnancy, the cervix will transform. After all, your uterus is preparing to squeeze a full-grown baby out through a little opening. Two primary changes will happen to it: dilation and effacement.

Dilation means “opening.” While it can be a slow process, it can also quickly change as your baby drops lower. Some women’s cervixes will slowly dilate over the last few weeks of pregnancy. Other moms may not dilate until they’re in active labor, so don’t worry if it hasn’t happened yet (5).

Doctors and midwives measure dilation in centimeters. Once the cervix is dilating regularly and steadily, you can usually assume you’re in active labor.

For most full-term babies, the cervix is fully dilated when it reaches 10 centimeters (just under 4 inches). To give you an idea, that’s about the size of a bagel (6).

Effacement means “thinning.” As the cervix dilates, it will also become soft and thin to make room for the baby. This thinning is measured in percentages (7). The cervix starts out thick, like a steak, and thins out until it is as thin as a sheet of paper.

Your OB may conduct regular cervical examinations during the last weeks. It’s okay to decline the check and wait until you’re closer to labor. Unless you’re regularly contracting or unsure if the baby is head down, cervical examinations do not tell you when you will go into labor.

These checks can be very uncomfortable, but the best thing to do is relax as much as possible. Remember that it won’t last long, and it’s yet another sign your baby is finally on the way.

6. Are Those Real Contractions or Braxton Hicks?

Some women will have “false” labor pains, known as Braxton Hicks, during pregnancy.

These labor pains do not feel false! Even if you haven’t experienced Braxton Hicks before the third trimester, you may begin to feel a few in the final weeks before birth.

Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and don’t mean labor is starting. These pains range from mild to agonizing.

It can be challenging to differentiate between Braxton Hicks and real contractions. However, the two differ in several ways. With Braxton Hicks, you’ll experience the following:

  • Tightening of the abdomen and uterus: Many women say these contractions feel like intense menstrual cramps.
  • Irregular contractions: Time your contractions if they seem steady. If they are irregular, chances are they’re Braxton Hicks. But if your contractions are regular, you may be in the first stages of labor.
  • Starts and stops: Try changing your position or activity to calm things down.
  • Steady pains: Real contractions will increase in intensity over time, but Braxton Hicks will stay the same, with only minor changes (8).

7. Diarrhea

Sorry to break it to you, but as labor gets closer, you may experience the oh-so-delightful “runs.”

The muscles in your uterus are relaxing as they prepare for labor. Other muscles, such as your rectum, will do the same. Some women find themselves taking a few more trips to the bathroom to empty their bowels.

If it becomes frequent, you may need to tell your OB provider. Otherwise, just ensure you drink enough water and eat well to replace lost fluids.

Here are a few things you can try to avoid diarrhea:

  • Reconsider what you’re eating: Foods high in fat and fried or spicy food can irritate your delicate gut, so try to strike a balance in your diet.
  • Check your medications: Some medications can increase the chances of diarrhea. Prenatal vitamins are one of them. If you take your prenatal vitamin with a meal, it may alleviate some of your stomach troubles.

Though diarrhea is typically harmless, there are a few things to look out for:

These could be signs of dehydration, which can be very dangerous for you and your baby, so it should be treated quickly (9).

8. Say Farewell to Your Mucus Plug

The notorious mucus plug. Haven’t we all heard of the little snot cork that falls out as labor starts? The truth is, the mucus plug is what protects the baby from the outside world.

How and when the plug comes out is different for all women. Some may see the whole thing, while others only notice bits and pieces.

The mucus plug typically looks similar to egg whites or human snot.

As it falls out, it means your cervix is ripening — dilating and effacing. Some women will lose it early in the third trimester, and others will lose it in the second. However, if you lose your mucous plug early, it will probably grow back.

The mucus plug usually falls out before the water breaks. However, sometimes the two occur within a very short time frame.

If labor is only a few days away, you may also notice a few changes in vaginal discharge. It may appear thicker, and you may see a more significant amount than you’re used to.

If you notice pink or brown streaks of blood in your discharge, it may be what we lovingly refer to as “the bloody show.” This is an indication that labor is right around the corner, so you may want to pack your hospital bag (10).

9. Did I Wet My Pants?

Haven’t we all seen this movie scene? The water breaks (usually in a very public place), and the woman is instantly thrown into active labor. The truth is, that’s far from reality for many.

Water breaking is one of the final signs of the pregnancy coming to an end. For some women, it can occur days before the birth, while others have their water broken for them in active labor. Don’t feel bad if it hasn’t happened yet.

What does the water breaking actually feel like? Here are a few ways women have described it:

  • A gush or splash: Described as coming from deep within.
  • Trickle: Some feel a little liquid trickle down their legs.
  • A pop, followed by relief: Like popping a balloon (11).

Early Labor FAQs

When Can I Expect the Signs to Appear?

The first early signs of labor, such as nesting, your baby dropping, or increased discomfort, could start any time during the third trimester. However, they will likely become more obvious around a month before labor.

Other signs such as diarrhea, losing the mucus plug, and irregular contractions could happen anywhere between a week and eight hours before.

When Should I Contact My Doctor or Midwife?

If you suspect your water has broken, you should immediately notify your OB or midwife.

When you notice that the contractions are becoming stronger and more regular, get out a timer. You could even download an app made explicitly to time contractions, which is also an excellent way to distract yourself. Write down the strength of the contraction and how long it lasts. Measure the timing of the contractions from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next.

Contractions that last 30 to 70 seconds at regular intervals (5 minutes apart or less) could indicate labor. Never hesitate or feel embarrassed to call your doctor (12).

How Long Can Early Labor Last?

Early labor, or the first stage, often lasts up to 20 hours (13). However, it can be much shorter, particularly with second and subsequent births.

Can I Help My Labor Along Naturally?

Labor and delivery can be a long and tiring process. Luckily there are a few things you can do to give it a gentle push.

Take Advantage of Your Partner

I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but sex is a great way to help labor along. Semen contains special fats called prostaglandins which soften the cervix and help it dilate. Also, if you orgasm, it could potentially lead to stronger contractions (14).

Light Exercise

If your labor is coming along slowly, it could be a good idea to go for a walk, assuming your water hasn’t broken. Light exercise can help your baby move further down into your pelvis. It can also ease some of that pain.

Change Your Position Frequently

Move around frequently. Keeping upright will encourage your baby to continue to move down in your pelvis. Try other helpful positions like hands and knees, squatting, sitting on the toilet, or doing lunges.

Sit on a Fitness Ball

Bounce or rock your hips while sitting on a birth ball. The ball helps your baby’s head to apply continuous pressure to your cervix.

Nipple Stimulation

When the nipples are stimulated, the pituitary glands release oxytocin. Oxytocin is highly contraction-inducing. In fact, doctors use a synthetic form of oxytocin called Pitocin to induce labor (15). Run this by your health care provider first. If done too early or too frequently, it can cause preterm contractions or distress your baby.

Do Babies Get More Active Before Labor?

There’s no consistent pattern; some may become more active, while others may slow down. Monitor movements and consult your doctor if you notice significant changes.

What Triggers Labor?

Labor is triggered by complex hormonal signals and physical changes. The definite cause isn’t fully understood, but involves the baby’s readiness and maternal body signals.

Can Labor Start Without Losing a Mucus Plug or Water Breaking?

Yes, labor can begin with contractions even if the mucus plug or water hasn’t broken. These events don’t always signify the start of labor for every woman.

Is Labor More Likely to Start During the Day or at Night?

There’s a tendency for labor to start at night, possibly due to hormonal changes. However, labor can begin at any time of day.

Could You Be In Labor and Not Know It?

It’s possible, especially if contractions are mild. Some women may not realize they’re in labor until the contractions become more frequent and intense.

I recommend that moms distract themselves from beginning labor pains. Before labor starts, choose an early labor project. Many moms choose to watch a movie, finish a craft project, or bake cookies. Time your contractions occasionally so you have an idea of how close they are becoming. If you fixate only on the contractions, it can make labor seem longer!
Headshot of Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Editor's Note:

Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

The Last Push

The last month of pregnancy can feel like an eternity. You know the feeling. You’re anxious to see your baby, but you may be nervous about the birth. With every little cramp, you wonder if this could be the big moment.

Stay calm and be patient. (We’ve been there, so we know this is easier said than done!) Remember that your body — and baby — need to be fully prepared for this momentous event.

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Headshot of Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Medically Reviewed by

Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Caitlin Goodwin MSN, RN, CNM is a Certified Nurse-Midwife, clinical instructor and educator. She has ten years of nursing experience and enjoys blogging about family travel and autism in her free time.