How Will I Know When I'm in Labor? Early signs of Labor

As you near the end of your pregnancy you may be wondering what the early signs of labor are. "When is it the real thing?" "When do I go to the hospital" or "When do I call the midwife?"

While there are certainly variations among women, there are several signs you can look for to clue you in that labor and birth are near.

Now you have to keep in mind that pregnancy and birth run along a continuum. Pregnancy gradually flows into labor, and labor gradually flows into birth. There is not a line between where one ends and the other begins.

Keeping that in mind, these are some of the early signs of labor:

The baby "dropping" in the pelvis--also known as lightening

This is one of the very early signs of labor. This simply means that the baby moves down into the pelvis. The baby's head will be at 0 station in obstetric speak--or "engaged" in the pelvis.

You will notice that your belly looks lower than before and/or that you have more room to breathe and the baby is not crowding your rib cage as much. You may also notice more pressure on your bladder than before and find that you are running to the bathroom more often.

Lightening can occur from many weeks before the baby is born to just before or even during labor. For first time moms, it usually occurs prior to labor.

For some women, the baby is low in the pelvis for most of the pregnancy so a significant "dropping" is never felt. This was certainly the case for me. For the last eight weeks of my pregnancy, I felt like the baby was just going to fall out she felt so low!

Water breaking (amniotic sac breaking)

The bag of waters breaking can be an early sign of labor, although more frequently it occurs during the later stages of labor when contractions are well established or during the pushing phase. The amniotic sac can break all at once with a big gush or it can be a slow trickle, or a combination of the two.

This was how I knew for sure that I was in labor. My water broke and very soon afterward contractions began to increase.

Losing the mucous plug (bloody show)

The mucous plug consists of the mucus that blocks the cervix--the opening of the womb--during pregnancy. It is often mixed with a bit of blood and has a pinkish tinge. Losing the mucous plug is a good sign that labor will be under way soon. Although sometimes it can still be a few days before active labor kicks in.


Warm-up contractions are an early sign of labor.

Most women will notice Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout the latter part of their pregnancy. These "practice contractions" help to prepare your body for more intense contractions later on.

Contractions will become more frequent towards the end of pregnancy. You will know labor has truly begun when the contractions keep increasing in frequency, intensity, and duration. Labor contractions do not go away when you lie down or take a bath. Preparation contractions will lessen and stop when you are relaxed.

Labor contractions may start out sporadic then they will come every ten minutes apart, then every five, then every two in the later stages of labor.

Cervical dilation and effacement

Another early sign of labor is the thinning or effacement of the cervix. Once the cervix dilates or opens more than 3 or 4 centimeters you are usually in active labor.

Cervical effacement and dilation is something you can check yourself at home. It is especially easy to do if you are used to checking your cervix for fertility awareness.

As the cervix effaces it feels thinner and softer. Each centimeter of dilation is roughly one average finger width. So one fingertip into the cervix is one centimeter of dilation, two fingers is two centimeters and so on.

Emotional early signs of labor

There can be emotional sign posts for some women that are early signs of labor. Feeling the urge to "nest"--to get the home in order and make sure final preparations are complete before baby arrives can be an early sign of labor.

Some women will have an intuition that the baby is coming soon or feel that her body is beginning the process of opening.

Some women will get extremely tired and cranky, while others will get a burst of energy.

These emotional sign posts are subjective and not universal to all women.

If you are concerned about not knowing if you are in labor--you'll know! When your contractions are intense enough to require all of your focus and concentration--you are in active labor. You will not be able to talk through them or do anything else, but focus in that moment.

So enjoy the rest of your pregnancy as much as you can--and rest assured you won't be pregnant forever!

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