Am I in labor? 5 early signs of labor to know about

While it looks different for everyone, there are a few early signs of labor to look out for.

early signs of labor

You're. So. Close. Seriously, you're going 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 earliest 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." So 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, as they could be a sign of preterm labor.

Here are some of the 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 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.

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. Labor happens in phases: Early labor and then active labor.

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 an hour. But again, call your provider so they can help with the plan.

And then... well then you become a mama.

Want more tips for labor (and everything else on your pregnancy journey?)

'The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama'

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Mayo Clinic, Preterm labor, December 2019

Mayo Clinic, Water breaking: Understand this sign of labor, July 2019

Motherly Editors with Diana Spalding, MSN CNM, The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama, April 2020

Society for Endocrinology, Prostaglandins, October 2019

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