Early labor: How to know when it starts—and what to do when it does

Wondering what to do in early labor? Spoiler alert: Rest, eat and move, mama!

what to do during early labor
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We spend so much time during pregnancy anticipating labor, but when the big moment finally arrives, it can be tricky to know what to actually do! Should I call my doctor or midwife? Should I take a nap or get on my birth ball? Wait, am I even in labor?

Don't worry, mama. We've got you.

Early labor is the very first part of labor when your body is starting the process of giving birth. Early labor can be different for everyone—it may come on suddenly and powerfully, or you may find that it takes a bit to realize that you are in labor. One thing's for certain though: The baby is on the way and you are really and truly about to become a mama!

So let's break down what to anticipate during early labor, so you can rock this beginning phase of your birth.


As always, remember that your provider should be your number one resource during labor, so please check with them before trying any of the following methods. You may have specific circumstances that would make them unsafe for you and your baby.

How do I know I'm in early labor?

Early labor is usually the longest phase of the first stage of labor. It can last roughly from eight to 12 hours for a first-time mom and fewer than one to eight hours for a repeat mom, though it's important to remember that this can vary widely.

During early labor, your cervix will soften, efface (thin) and dilate (open) about six centimeters, accompanied by contractions that start mild and irregular, but progress to stronger and more regular. While it varies for everyone, contractions might start coming every 20 to 30 minutes and last for about 30 seconds. They will gradually become more frequent (about every five minutes), and last about 30 to 45 seconds each. They are generally uncomfortable, but tolerable.

Early labor contractions often start low down in your pelvis and feel a lot like menstrual cramps. It can sometimes take a bit for women to have the Oh wait, maybe I am in labor! thought because the cramping can be so minimal. A lot of women think it's gas at first.

You may start to feel them in your lower back and find that they wrap around your belly toward your front. Eventually, you will feel them in your whole belly (your whole uterus). But you've got this, mama.

What should I do during early labor?

When you finally have that ah-ha "I'm in labor!" moment, here are some steps to take during early labor:

  • Call your provider. It may not be time to head to your birthing place yet or to have your midwife come to you, but it's always good to check in. Your provider will ask you questions about what's going on and help you determine what the best course of action is (which varies from woman to woman). If you get the green light to stay home longer, and your provider has not recommended any restrictions, you can follow the rest of these steps. This is also a good time to contact your doula if you have one.
  • Have a light meal and stay hydrated. Remember that you are about to run a marathon and you need good sustainable energy. Registered Dietician Nutritionist Crystal Karges suggests multigrain crackers with nut butter, trail mix and dried fruit to help keep you nourished.
  • Go for a walk with your partner or labor support person. Walking during early labor has a lot of benefits: It can encourage your baby to get into a good position to make labor easier, it can bring on more contractions while also helping you tolerate them better and it's a nice distraction. Don't be afraid to lean on your partner and sway during the contractions. Your neighbors will love it! (Always keep your phone close by.)
  • Take a warm shower. Anecdotally, baths can slow things down in early labor, but showers are fantastic. They are relaxing and therapeutic, help with pain management and will help lull you into the next step.
  • Take a nap. The marathon is about to start. You may have a lot of energy and excitement during early labor, but see if you can lie down and close your eyes. Even if you can only drift off for a few minutes at a time, catnaps help restore energy. And don't worry, napping won't prevent labor from continuing.

What is back labor and how can I help it during early labor?

sacrum press for back labor

Sometimes labor brings a significant amount of back pain, called back labor. This usually happens when the baby is positioned posteriorly, which means that their face is pointing toward your front and the heavy back of their head is against your tailbone. Ouch! Babies can be born in this position (they are called stargazers or sunny-side-up), but it can make for more difficult labor.

If you have back labor, one of the best things to do is move—walk, lunge, dance, sway on a birth ball and hang out in a hands-and-knees position; anything you can do to open up the space in your pelvis so that your baby can rotate. Ask your labor partner to press against your sacrum for some relief. Warm compresses also feel great in these scenarios.

When should I go to my birthing place? 

The general rule of thumb for heading into your birthing place is "4-1-1." Contractions are four minutes apart, they last one minute each, and they have been going on for one hour.

Often during early labor, you don't need to head to your birthplace quite yet. But don't forget to give your provider a call. They will have a better recommendation of what to do based on your scenario, and may ask you to come in.

Once active labor starts, you should head to your birthplace or call your midwife. A few ways to tell you're going into active labor are that contractions are more frequent, usually coming every three to five minutes and lasting about 60 seconds each. Also, your water might break.

As a partner or support person, how can I help during early labor? 

It can be hard as a partner or support person to see your loved one experiencing sensations and emotions you've never witnessed before. Please remember this: You are enough. Your presence alone has a profound impact on her.

Research finds that when women have a consistent support person with them in labor, their labors are shorter, require fewer interventions and are more satisfying than they would be otherwise. Just by being there, you are helping her.

Here are some things you can do to help her in early labor:

  • Give her comfort. Again, just you being there is helping her!
  • Encourage her to eat and drink (and you should, too!). You're going to need your energy for what's to come, too!
  • Help her find ways to cope. Instead of saying, "What do you want to do now?" you could suggest techniques you know she likes. For example, "How about a shower?"

Are there warning signs I should look out for in early labor?

Usually, everything goes just fine! But it is important to be aware of a few warning signs, and to seek medical attention right away if you have them:

  • Vaginal bleeding (more than about a few drops)
  • Foul-smelling, green or brown amniotic fluid
  • Not feeling the baby move
  • Sharp abdominal pain
  • Seeing or feeling your umbilical cord in your vagina when you water breaks (if this happens, call 9-1-1. Get down on your hands and knees, and then even further down so that your shoulders are touching the ground and your bottom is all the way up.)
  • Anything else that concerns you! Remember: This is your birth and you deserve to feel safe. If you have any worrying symptoms, call your provider or head to your birth place. Even if it's 2 am.

Good luck, and keep us posted! We are so excited for you!

Getting ready for your labor? Here are our favorite products to help you rock your birth, mama.

‘The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama’ book

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Fully prepared birth bag

You've got a lot on your mind, mama. Let us take care of your packing with this fully stocked, ready to go birth bag. Filled with the items you need most, this gorgeous bag will be a total game-changer. All you have to do is have a baby (wink emoji).

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Water bottle

Hydration in early labor is paramount. The Welly bottle is perfect for maintaining the temperature of your hot or cold beverage in style. Plus, it comes with an infuser to make your hydration anything but boring.

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A portion of this article has been excerpted from The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama.

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, How to Tell When Labor Begins, May 2020.

Mayo Clinic, Stages of Labor, February 2020

Motherly Editors, The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama, April 2020