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

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

For a comprehensive guide to having your best birth, don't miss The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama. Chock full of information, tips and coping skills (that will empower, not scare you), this is the one book you need to rock your birth.


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).


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.


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

An expectant mama's to-do list can feel endless… but here's the good news: A lot of those tasks are actually really exciting. Planning your baby registry is especially thrilling: You get a say in what gifts friends and family members will buy for your new addition!

But it can also feel a bit overwhelming to make sense of all the gear on the market. That's why we suggest mentally dividing your registry into two categories: items you need to prepare for your baby's arrival and items that sure would be nice to have.

Here at Motherly, our editors have dozens of kids and years of parenting experience among us, so we know our way around the essentials. We also know how mama-friendly the registry-building experience is with Target, especially thanks to their recently upgraded registry and introduction of Year of Benefits. Just by creating your baby registry with Target, you'll snag a kit with $120 in discounts and samples. The savings keep coming: You'll also get two 15% off coupons to buy unpurchased items from your registry for up to a year after your baby's expected arrival. Change your mind about anything? The Year of Benefits allows for returns or exchanges for a full year. And as of August 2020, those who also sign up for Target Circle when creating a baby registry will also get the retailer's Year of Exclusive Deals, which includes ongoing discounts on baby essentials for a full year.

Here are 10 items we agree deserve a spot in the "need" category on your registry, mama.

A crib to grow with your baby

Delta Children Farmhouse 6-in-1 Convertible Crib

First-time mamas are likely creating nursery spaces for the first time, and that can get expensive. Adding a quality crib to Target registry gives friends and family members the option to join forces to make a large purchase through group gifting.


A safe + convenient car seat

Safety 1st OnBoard 35 LT Infant Car Seat

The list of non-negotiable baby essentials is pretty short, but it definitely includes a car seat. In fact, most hospitals will not allow you to leave after delivery until a car seat check is performed. We recommend an infant seat, which can easily snap into a base in your car.


A traveling nursery station

Baby Trend Lil Snooze Deluxe II Nursery Center

It's hard to beat a good playard when it comes to longevity. This item can be baby's sleeping place when they're sharing a room with you for the first months. Down the line, it can function as a roving diaper change station. And when you travel, it makes a great safe space for your little one to sleep and play.


A swing for some backup help

4moms mamaRoo 4 Bluetooth Enabled High-Tech Baby Swing - Classic

A dependable swing can be a real lifesaver for new parents when they need their hands free (or just a minute to themselves). Because many babies are opinionated about these things, we appreciate that the mamaRoo has multiple modes of motion and soothing sounds.


An easy-to-clean high chair

Ingenuity SmartClean Trio Elite 3-in-1 High Chair - Slate

Our best registry advice? Think ahead. It really won't be long before your child is ready for those first bites of solid food, at which point you'll need a high chair. We like one that transitions to a booster seat atop an existing dining room chair.


A diaper bag to share

Eddie Bauer Backpack - Gray/Tan

When you're a mom, you're usually toting diapers, wipes, clothing changes, bottles, snacks, toys and more. You need a great bag to stash it all, and if you're anything like us, you'll choose a backpack style for comfort and functionality. Bonus: This gender neutral option can easily be passed off to your partner.


A hygienic spot for all those diaper changes

Munchkin Secure Grip Waterproof Diaper Changing Pad 16X31"

We can confidently predict there will be a lot of diaper changes in your future. Do yourself a favor by registering for two comfortable, wipeable changing pads: one to keep in the nursery and another to stash elsewhere in your house.


A way to keep an eye on your baby at night

Infant Optics Video Baby Monitor DXR-8

Feeling peace of mind while your baby sleeps in another room truly is priceless.That's why we advocate for a quality video monitor that will allow you to keep tabs on your snoozing sweetheart.


A comfortable carrier to free up your hands

Petunia Pickle Bottom for Moby Wrap Baby Carrier, Strolling in Salvador

A wrap carrier may be about as low-tech as baby items come, but trust us, this product stands the test of time. Great for use around the house or while running errands, this is one item you'll appreciate so much.


A full set of bottles + cleaning supplies

Dr. Brown's Options+ Complete Baby Bottle Gift Set

Whether you plan to work in an office or stay at home, breastfeed or formula feed, bottles are a valuable tool. To make your life as simple as possible, it's nice to have an easy-to-clean set that is designed to work through the first year.


Target's baby registry is easy to create from the comfort of your own home. Start your Target baby registry now and enjoy shopping with the Year of Benefits featuring exclusive deals available via Target Circle, two 15% off coupons, a year of hassle-free returns, a free welcome kit and more!

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

10 photos to take on baby’s first day that you'll cherish forever

You'll obsess over these newborn baby pictures.

Bethany Menzel: Instagram + Blog

As you're preparing for baby's birth, we bet you're dreaming of all of the amazing photos you'll take of your precious new babe. As a professional photographer and mama, I have some tips for newborn photos you'll want to capture.

Here are the 10 photos you will want to take on baby's first day.

Keep reading Show less

29 last-minute family Halloween costumes you can pull together NOW

If your little one is going as a lion, coordinating is as easy as breaking out the khaki!

Here's how Halloween unfolds in most households I know: Mom spends weeks—even months—planning the perfect costumes for little ones. Then Halloween creeps up and they realize they need an outfit to coordinate with the kids' get-ups. What's a mom to do?!

Thankfully, there's no need for fear or pressure: There are so many ideas for parents that are easy to make and still super clever.

Keep reading Show less