You’re. So. Close. Seriously, you’re about to give birth any day now. But these last weeks of pregnancy can be tough—lots of discomfort and just feeling so ready to meet your little darling. So it’s no wonder that many find themselves anxiously wondering about the early signs of labor. I just had diarrhea—is diarrhea an early sign of labor? Is this happening? Please?!

While it looks different for everyone, there are a few early signs of labor to look out for. As I share in The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama, “Remember that you do not have to figure out on your own if you’re in labor. Your provider has a way for you to reach them at any time, so they can help guide you through this: when to leave for your birthing place, if applicable, and what to do to best take care of yourself and your baby in the meantime.”

We also cover signs that labor is approaching in The Motherly Birth Class, an online class that may be covered by your health insurance plan or HSA/FSA benefits.

The Motherly birth class

As for you how are feeling right now: Never hesitate to reach out to your provider if you’re unsure—yes, even at 2 am, and especially if you are earlier than 37 weeks pregnant, which could mean you’re experiencing preterm labor.

What are the early signs of labor?

Here are the 5 most common early signs of labor you might be curious about.

1. Is nesting an early sign of labor?

In the days or hours leading up to labor, some may get a serious boost of energy. Just like a mama bird getting her nest ready for her hatchlings, you may find yourself busy getting things ready for your little chickadee. Remember to schedule in plenty of rest, fluids and snacks so you have energy for birth. And be careful, no climbing ladders to dust the top of the ceiling fan, please.

2. Is losing your mucus plug an early sign of labor?

During pregnancy, a small glob of mucus sits in your cervix to help protect the baby from bacteria. As your cervix starts to get softer in preparation for labor, the mucus plug may fall out (it looks like when you blow your nose when you have a cold).

Some women lose their mucus plug weeks before they give birth, while others only lose it when they are actively in labor—so while it’s not a tell-tale sign that your baby is coming soon, it is a good sign that things are at least moving in the right direction. This early sign of labor is sometimes called the “bloody show” because it can have a streak of blood in it. It’s most likely totally normal, but never hesitate to call your provider if you need to be reassured! And if you see more than a teaspoon worth of blood, call.

Related: Try these 4 yoga poses to induce labor—safely

3. Is diarrhea an early sign of labor?

A hormone called prostaglandin is released in your body as it prepares to go into labor. Prostaglandin helps to make your cervix softer and looser (so it can dilate), but it also makes your bowels looser—in other words, you might have diarrhea, and/or more frequent trips to the bathroom. Make sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and juice.

4. Will your water break in early labor?

We’ve all seen the movies where a woman is minding her own business when suddenly her water breaks, and the entire world seemingly grinds to a halt. While it is a REALLY exciting moment, it’s usually not that dramatic. In fact, only about 10% experience their water breaking before labor starts—it usually breaks during labor.

When your water breaks, it may be a big gush of fluid or it may be a small but steady trickle. If your water breaks at home call your doctor or midwife to give them a heads up and discuss the plan. Then, remember TACO:

  • Time: What time did your water break?
  • Amount: How much fluid came out?
  • Color: Ideally it will be clear. If it’s green or brown, call your provider right away
  • Odor: Amniotic fluid does not have much of a smell to it. Anything yucky smelling could indicate a problem, so again, call your provider

Note: It’s super rare, but occasionally an emergency called a prolapsed cord can occur. If your water breaks and you think you feel the umbilical cord in your vagina, get in an elbows-and-knees position and call 911 right away.

5. Cramping & contractions in early labor

Ultimately, labor is about contractions—your uterus is a big (awesome) muscle that contracts to help dilate the cervix, and ease the baby down and out.

Early labor is when your cervix dilates from zero to six centimeters

Early labor is usually the longest part of labor, especially for first-time births. It often starts with mild contractions that feel a lot like menstrual cramps. They’ll probably be irregular (anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes apart, and short (about 45 seconds). Contractions will gradually become more frequent, longer and more intense. Many women describe a tightening sensation that starts in their lower back and moves towards their belly.

When you start to have contractions that aren’t going away, call your provider to give them a heads up. There is a good chance they’ll encourage you to stay home during early labor. You’ll be more comfortable there, and your risk of medical interventions decreases by staying home longer.

In active labor, your cervix will dilate from six to eight centimeters

During active labor, contractions are more regular (about every three to four minutes), last longer (about 60 seconds), and are much more intense—they now require all of your attention, and can cause a fair amount of discomfort. Many describe a downward pressure, along with some degree of pain, but this varies for everyone!

You’ll likely head to your birthing place during active labor.

If you’re in active labor, the general rule is 4-1-1.

You’re in active labor when contractions are four minutes apart, lasting one minute each, and this has been going on for one hour. But again, call your provider so they can help with the plan.

And then… well then you become a mama.

What is False Labor?

False labor consists of contractions that feel similar to labor contractions but do not result in the dilation of the cervix. These contractions are your body’s way of preparing for labor but are not a sign that labor has begun. Braxton Hicks contractions can start as early as the second trimester but are more common in the weeks leading up to delivery.

Key Characteristics of False Labor

  • Contractions are irregular: False labor contractions do not follow a regular pattern and vary in length and intensity. They may stop when you change positions or activities.
  • Contractions are typically painless: While they can be uncomfortable, Braxton Hicks contractions are usually less intense and painful than true labor contractions.
  • Lack of progression: Unlike true labor, where contractions become closer together, longer, and more intense, false labor contractions do not increase in intensity or frequency over time.
  • No other signs of labor: False labor is not accompanied by other labor signs, such as the breaking of water or the loss of the mucus plug.

How to Differentiate False Labor from True Labor

Understanding the differences between false and true labor can help you decide when to contact your healthcare provider or head to the hospital. Here are some tips:

  • Monitor contraction patterns: True labor contractions come at regular intervals, gradually get closer together, and become stronger and longer lasting. If contractions remain irregular and stop with rest or hydration, it’s likely false labor.
  • Change your activity: False labor contractions often subside with movement or changes in position. Taking a walk, resting, or taking a warm bath can help determine if it’s true labor.
  • Check for other signs: The presence of other labor signs, such as the bloody show or water breaking, suggests true labor.

If you’re looking for more information, checkout this article on early labor from MedlinePlus

When to Contact Your Healthcare Provider

Even if you suspect false labor, never hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you are unsure or if anything feels off. It’s especially important to call your provider if:

  • You experience any contraction before 37 weeks, which could indicate preterm labor.
  • Contractions become regular and increase in intensity.
  • You notice any bleeding, unusual discharge, or a significant decrease in your baby’s movements.

FAQ: Early Signs of Labor and Preparations

Q1: Is diarrhea a sign that labor is starting?

A1: Yes, diarrhea can be an early sign of labor due to the release of prostaglandins, which prepare your body for labor by softening the cervix and can also loosen your bowels.

Q2: What should I do if I experience early signs of labor?

A2: Always contact your healthcare provider for guidance, especially if you are unsure or if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, as it could indicate preterm labor.

Q3: Can nesting behavior indicate that labor is near?

A3: Yes, a surge of energy and the urge to prepare your home for the baby, known as nesting, can be a sign that labor is approaching. Remember to rest and stay safe while preparing.

Q4: What does losing your mucus plug mean?

A4: Losing your mucus plug is a sign that your cervix is preparing for labor. It may happen weeks before labor or during labor. If you notice blood or are concerned, contact your healthcare provider.

Q5: Will my water break when labor starts?

A5: While it’s a common sign of labor, only about 10% of women experience their water breaking before labor starts. It’s usually not as dramatic as portrayed in movies and can be a gush or a trickle of fluid.

Q6: What are the signs of early labor contractions?

A6: Early labor contractions may feel like menstrual cramps, starting irregular and mild, becoming more frequent, longer, and more intense as labor progresses. They often start in the back and move to the front.

Q7: What is the difference between early labor and active labor?

A7: Early labor is when your cervix dilates from zero to six centimeters, often with mild, irregular contractions. Active labor is more intense, with contractions becoming regular, lasting longer, and dilating the cervix from six to eight centimeters.

Q8: When should I go to my birthing place?

A8: It’s typically advised to head to your birthing place during active labor when contractions are about four minutes apart, lasting one minute each, for at least one hour. Always consult with your healthcare provider to make the best plan for you.

Q9: What does TACO stand for in the context of water breaking?

A9: TACO is a mnemonic to remember what to note if your water breaks: Time (when it happened), Amount (how much fluid), Color (ideally clear), and Odor (should not have a strong smell).

Q10: What should I do if I think my water broke?

A10: Contact your healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms and next steps. If the fluid is green or brown or has a bad odor, call your provider immediately. If you suspect a prolapsed cord, assume an elbows-and-knees position and call 911.

Related: Experts share 6 tips on how to prepare for your first birth

A version of this story was originally published on Oct. 18, 2021. It has been updated.