Early Labor Symptoms: How to Recognize the Signs
From cramps and aches to contractions and low back twinges, here’s everything you need to know about the signs of early labor.
By Wendy Wisner
Is That a Sign of Labor?
As you near your due date, it’s common to wonder if every little twinge you’re experiencing is a sign that labor is starting. Thankfully, the body has a few pretty clear ways of telling you that you will be meeting your baby soon. Not every pregnant person experiences all of these—and some people experience almost no early labor symptoms!—but here’s what to know about what might happen as you edge closer to the finish line.
What Is Labor?
Labor is characterized by a succession of progressively more intense uterine contractions that cause your cervix (the opening at the bottom of your uterus) to dilate and efface (thin out) and your baby to make its way down the birth canal. Labor is a process. We usually think of labor as those few hours where our contractions become overpowering, one after another, and our baby is born. But that is the active phase of labor, and early labor looks a little different than this.
During early labor, which can last 12 to 24 hours, or even a little longer, your body is doing a lot of preparation—including cervical dilation and effacement. But the signs are more subtle than in active labor, when it’s hard to concentrate on anything else but getting through your contractions. The symptoms of early labor can be so subdued that some parents don’t even know it’s happening.
What Are The Early Signs Of Labor?
Some expectant parents experience most or all of the signs of early labor. But some parents don’t experience many of them, or they experience them so close to the active phase of labor, that early labor isn’t much of a “thing” for them. Here’s what to know about what some of the possible signs are, and what it may feel like if you experience them.
Most of us think of the water breaking as the “classic” sign of labor starting, but only about 8 to 10% of parents will have their water break (membranes rupture) before contractions start. Water breaking is experienced a little differently by different people—with some experiencing a big gush of water, like you see in the movies, and others experiencing more of a gentle trickle. Either way, if your water breaks, you will likely go into labor within the next 24 hours.
Cramping or Irregular Contractions
One of the most common signs of early labor are cramps and contractions, says Meagan Moore, MD, an OB/GYN, at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. These may feel like intense cramps, or what people often describe as worsening Braxton Hicks contractions, says Dr. Moore. Still, others experience these a little differently. “While many anticipate painful uterine contractions as a sign of labor, some [parents] may only detect an increase in pelvic pressure as their first sign of labor,” Dr. Moore describes.
Losing Your Mucus Plug
Your mucus plug plays a protective role during pregnancy, guarding the opening of the cervix against bacteria and germs. But as labor gets closer and the cervix softens and dilates, the plug begins to come out. This usually happens over a series of days. The mucus plug may look whitish, clear, pink, and might be accompanied by blood (“the bloody show”). Sometimes losing your mucus plug means labor is imminent—but often, you won’t go into labor for a week or two later.
A lesser known, but common sign of labor is something known as “lightning crotch,” explains Amy Wetter, M.D., OB-GYN at Northside Women’s Specialists, part of Pediatrix Medical Group. This happens as your baby moves down lower into your pelvis, and is often felt as a sharp, shooting pain deep in the pelvis. Some parents describe it as a pain that comes out of nowhere, like a bolt of lightning, which is how this symptom got its name.
Lower Back Pain
Besides cramps and contractions, you may experience pain or pressure in your lower back. Often, this is a new onset of back pain, close to when labor starts, says Dr. Moore. “Very often the position of the baby will determine whether a patient will experience abdominal pain versus lower back pain,” she explains.
Nausea and Diarrhea
Some parents experience symptoms that resemble an upset stomach or tummy bug shortly before they give birth. You may experience fatigue, diarrhea, nausea, and a sudden urge to use the bathroom during early labor, says Dr. Wetter. This is partly because your baby is pressing right on your rectum, she says. These symptoms often happen 24 to 48 hours before active labor starts.
You may have heard of nesting, which is a deep desire to get your home ready for your baby—to set up their space, make sure everything is “just so,” and settle down at home to get ready to meet your little one. Dr. Moore says this urge is something that often happens during early labor. Studies have found that it’s common, and may have evolved in humans as a means of survival and protection.
Can You Be In Labor and Not Know It?
Yes, it’s absolutely possible to be in early labor and not know it, says Dr. Moore. Many expectant parents expect traditional contractions to start as labor starts to get going, but not everyone experiences it this way. “Increases in pelvic pressure or irregular contractions may be something experienced off and on for several weeks, making it difficult to know exactly when it is time to seek medical advice,” she says. This is partly why you are seen so often in those last few weeks of pregnancy. It’s not uncommon for you to learn that you are closer to labor than you think you are after your provider examines you, Dr. Moore explains.
What Are The Best Ways To Help Labor Along?
You may be anxious to get things going once you are at the end of your pregnancy—after all, many of us are seriously uncomfortable, and just want to meet our babies already. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), any kind of elective labor induction should happen after 39 weeks of pregnancy, and only among parents who are considered low risk.
Even then, it’s not clear if some of the popular ways of getting labor going even work that well, says Dr. Moore. “While many of the recommendations are not supported by scientific studies, there are some methods that are safe and may be recommended by your practitioner,” she says. The ones that Dr. Moore discusses with her own patients include:
- Sexual intercourse, because it’s believed that prostaglandins released by sex can ripen the cervix
- Castor oil, small studies show that this is effective, but watch for diarrhea and stomach cramps
- Membrane stripping (AKA, “stripping membranes), which must be done in-office by your healthcare provider
It’s important to discuss any labor induction methods you are considering with your healthcare provider, because every pregnant person has different risks and needs. If you have any questions about when you should expect to go into labor, or your early labor signs, be sure to reach out to your doctor or midwife—that’s what they’re there for.