Early Signs of Labor – How to Recognize Labor Symptoms

pregnant woman in a long-sleeved dress

Labor Symptoms

Early Signs of Labor – How to Recognize Labor Symptoms

Whether it’s your first or fourth baby, labor is quite possibly one of the most anticipated aspects of pregnancy. Unfortunately, despite advances in the field of obstetrics, doctors are still unable to predict with any accuracy when a woman will go into labor. Even for “seasoned” moms, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if labor has truly begun. For some moms, labor begins suddenly and progresses quickly, for others, it is indeed a laborious process, stretching for several hours to several days.

Signs of Labor – Is Labor Approaching?

Typically, most women will notice many physical changes as their bodies prepare for labor and delivery. These labor symptoms can begin several days to weeks before actual labor commences.

packing baby clothes

Nesting Instinct

Aside from the physical symptoms of labor, you may experience a strong nesting instinct. Nesting is likely prompted by hormones, and the instinctual desire to prepare the “nest” for offspring. You may experience a sudden boost of energy prompting a frenzied spell of cleaning, organizing and decorating. Try not to overdo the physical activity at this time — you’ll need your energy for labor and all those upcoming sleepless nights!

Braxton Hicks Contractions

While most women experience Braxton Hicks contractions throughout their pregnancy, they tend to intensify and occur with greater frequency as labor approaches. Often called “practice contractions,” Braxton Hicks contractions are something to take seriously towards the end of pregnancy. As labor approaches, in essence, the uterus begins to warm up in preparation for the intense workout it will undergo during labor and delivery.

One way to determine if you are experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions and not labor contractions is to empty your bladder, drink a glass of water and lie down. With Braxton Hicks, they should subside within ten minutes.


As labor draws closer, your baby will begin to descend lower into your pelvis. Every mom carries her baby a little differently, and some who have carried low will not notice this change as readily as a mom who might have carried high. As your cervix softens, the baby will begin dropping until his head is fully applied to the cervix. One of the labor symptoms to watch for is an increased heaviness or pressure in your pelvis. You may experience the need to urinate more frequently, and bowel movements may be more difficult. Another uncomfortable side effect of the baby dropping is increased swelling in the legs and feet due to added pressure on the blood vessels. The upside to lightening is that it does take pressure off of your diaphragm, allowing easier breathing. You may also get a break from heartburn at this point.

Changes in Cervix

Though you may not be able to discern changes in your cervix, your doctor will begin monitoring it in the last few weeks of pregnancy. Some women will remain undilated up until the onset of true labor, while some will begin dilating several weeks before labor even begins. Although dilation is one of the most important labor symptoms, it will not give you any guarantee that labor will begin soon. Typically, the cervix will begin effacing (thinning), softening and dilating (opening) several days to weeks before labor.

pregnant woman in hospital

Vaginal Discharge

As the cervix continues to soften and dilate, many women will experience the loss of their mucous plug in what is often referred to as the “bloody show.” The mucous plug, which sealed the cervix throughout the pregnancy, may be passed as a clump, or over several days, indicated by an increase in mucous discharge. As the cervix dilates, blood vessels break and may tinge the mucous plug brown, pink or red. Passing the mucous plug is typically a sign that labor is imminent in the next few hours or days, though it may be dislodged a few weeks prior to labor due to intercourse or a doctor’s exam. If you experience this before 37 weeks, or the bleeding is heavy, and a consistent bright red, contact your doctor or midwife.

Rupture of Membranes

A woman’s labor is often portrayed with her water breaking at an inopportune time and place, followed by the speedy delivery of her baby. Few women will actually experience the rupture of her amniotic sac before she gets to the hospital, or before labor starts. When the amniotic sac ruptures, a woman may experience a gush of fluid, or a slow, steady trickle, depending on her position as well as the baby’s. Amniotic fluid is clear and odorless, though it may be slightly tinged with blood. Be sure to take note of the color of the fluid, and call your doctor or midwife immediately.

Labor Contractions

Of all the labor symptoms, contractions are the ones that are the surest sign that labor has begun. As labor begins and progresses, your contractions will increase in duration and intensity. They will differ from Braxton Hicks contractions in that in addition to the tightening or contracting of your uterus, they will often be accompanied by a radiating pain which may include pain in your back, and do not subside by changing position. If you can no longer talk through a contraction, these are mostly likely the real deal!

Time your contractions from the onset of one to the onset of the next. If they last at least one minute, and have been occurring every five minutes for the last hour, you are likely in labor and should contact your doctor or midwife immediately, or head to the hospital.

If you’re experiencing some or all of these symptoms before 37 weeks, be sure to contact your doctor immediately — you may be experiencing pre-term labor. Monitor your baby’s movements, and notify your doctor if you notice a significant reduction in movement. If you are experiencing heavy bleeding or severe pain, you should contact your doctor or head to the emergency room.

Waiting for labor to start can be frustrating, especially if you’ve been sent home from the hospital with false labor or early labor symptoms. Remember to trust your instincts and don’t hesitate to call your doctor with any questions or concerns — it’s their job!

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