Recognizing Early Labor Signs: Is It Happening?

Recognizing Early Labor Signs

The journey to welcoming a new baby into the world is an exhilarating and life-changing experience for any expectant parent. As the due date approaches, the anticipation can be overwhelming. An exciting part of preparing for childbirth is recognizing the signs of early labor. Understanding these signs can help you navigate this phase with confidence and make timely decisions about when to head to the hospital or birthing center. Let’s look at the various early labor signs, what they mean, and how to distinguish them from false alarms.

Understanding Early Labor

Early labor, also known as the latent phase, is the initial stage of childbirth that precedes active labor. During this phase, your body is preparing for the main event by gradually opening the cervix and aligning the baby’s head for descent into the birth canal. Early labor can last for several hours or even days.


One of the most common signs of early labor is the onset of contractions. Contractions are the rhythmic tightening and releasing of the uterine muscles that help open the cervix and push the baby down. To distinguish between Braxton Hicks contractions (often referred to as false labor) and true early labor contractions, you can monitor their frequency, duration, and intensity.

True early labor contractions should gradually become more intense over time. As labor progresses, these contractions will begin to meet the criteria for active labor, which typically requires contractions that are:

True labor contractions:

  • Occur at regular intervals, becoming progressively closer together.
  • Longer in duration, lasting about 30 to 60 seconds each.
  • Get more intense and painful as time goes on.
  • Felt consistently in the lower back and/or abdomen.
  • Are accompanied by other signs of labor, such as the release of the mucus plug or “bloody show.”

If you’re unsure whether your contractions are becoming closer together or more intense, try using a contraction timer app or stopwatch to track their frequency and duration.

Early labor or Braxton Hicks contractions:

  • Are irregular and don’t follow a consistent pattern.
  • Tend to be less painful and less intense.
  • Often stop or decrease in intensity when you change your position or activity.
  • Are not typically accompanied by other signs of labor.

With my second baby, I had irregular mild contractions for several days before they finally became regular and more intense. Once they did though, things started progressing quickly and within hours I was admitted to my hospital birthing room. Once the contractions become hard to speak through and you have to stop what you are doing during them, they are likely the real deal.

Changes in the Cervix

As your body prepares for childbirth, the cervix undergoes changes to become more favorable for the baby’s passage. Healthcare providers use cervical dilation and effacement as key indicators of labor progression. Dilation refers to the opening of the cervix, while effacement involves thinning and shortening of the cervix. Early labor is characterized by:

  • Mild to moderate cervical dilation, usually up to 4 centimeters.
  • Some degree of effacement, though it may vary from person to person.
  • A “bloody show,” is the release of a pink-tinged mucus plug as the cervix begins to dilate.

Increased Discharge

During early labor, you may notice an increase in vaginal discharge. This discharge is often clear or slightly pink-tinged and is due to the hormonal changes and cervical mucus production associated with labor.

When blood is present, it is often referred to as “bloody show” and for me, it was the telltale sign that I was beginning true labor. For both of my births, it appeared hours before the true painful contractions began.

Lower Backache and Pelvic Pressure

Many expectant mothers experience lower back pain and increased pressure in the pelvic area during early labor. This discomfort is a result of the baby’s head descending into the birth canal and the cervix opening. You might feel a constant ache or intermittent pain in your lower back, and the sensation of pressure may become more pronounced as labor progresses.

Engaging with Your Healthcare Provider

If have concerns about any of your symptoms, don’t hesitate to call your doctor or midwife. They can provide personalized advice and guidance based on your specific situation. It’s always better to be safe and have a healthcare professional assess your condition, especially if you have any high-risk factors or complications.

Coping with Early Labor

Coping with early labor can be challenging, as it’s a time of waiting and anticipation. Here are some strategies to help you manage this phase effectively:

  • Relaxation techniques: Practice deep breathing, visualization, or progressive muscle relaxation to ease tension and reduce anxiety.
  • Movement: Walking, swaying, rocking, or changing positions can help alleviate discomfort and encourage the progression of labor.
  • Hydration and nutrition: Stay hydrated by sipping water or clear fluids and eat light, easily digestible snacks to maintain your energy levels.
  • Emotional support: Lean on your partner, a doula, or a close friend for emotional support and encouragement during this phase.
  • Distraction: Engage in activities that distract you from the discomfort, such as watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to calming music.

When to Go to the Hospital or Birthing Center

Deciding when to go to the hospital or birthing center can be a pivotal moment in your childbirth journey. To determine the right time to go, consider the following guidelines:

  • Contractions are consistently strong, lasting 45 to 60 seconds each, and occurring 5 minutes apart or less.
  • You experience persistent lower back pain and pelvic pressure.
  • Your water breaks, which is a clear indicator that labor has begun.
  • You notice an increase in bloody show.

By the time contractions are this close together most women will be noticeably uncomfortable if not clearly in some pain. The contractions will likely be difficult to talk through and require some pausing of activity until they are through.

Contractions should follow a pattern but may not be exactly the same amount of time apart. Active labor contractions will continue to get more intense and close together.

You should call your healthcare provider or birthing facility for specific guidance. They can assess your situation over the phone and provide specific instructions based on your unique circumstances.

If you feel something could be wrong or have any concerns, do not hesitate to head to the hospital.


Preparing for labor and knowing what to expect can help reduce anxiety and make this transformative moment in your life as positive and empowering as possible. Remember, you’ve got this, and soon you’ll be holding your precious newborn in your arms, ready to embark on a new chapter of parenthood.

Read my article about postpartum recovery tips here.