Did you know that only 5% of pregnant folks give birth on their due dates? Unless you’re having a scheduled c-section, your baby’s exact birthday will be a surprise…most likely occurring between two weeks before and two weeks after your “official” due date. Though the calendar can’t give you a precise prediction, your body has many ways of dropping hints in the form of early signs of labor that let you know that the baby is on the way. Here are 12 early labor signs that the big day is coming.

Early Signs of Labor That Mean Your Body is Getting Ready

Before your contractions inch closer and closer together and before your water breaks, your body gives many clues that it’s readying for birth. Some of those early labor signs are subtle and some are eye-poppingly obvious!

Early labor sign #1: Your baby has dropped.

Anywhere from a few weeks to a few hours before active labor begins, your baby’s head will drop into your pelvis in preparation for birth. This phenomenon is called lightening and, oddly enough, it’s not that noticeable…until you glance in the mirror and see the shape of your abdomen has changed! Bonus: That shortness of breath you’ve been suffering could improve big-time as the baby shifts down, away from your diaphragm. Less of a bonus: You may experience new pelvic heaviness or discomfort—and an increased need to urinate.

Early labor sign #2: You feel the urge to nest.

In the days leading up to the birth, you might get a sudden burst of energy coupled with the desire to clean, organize, or prepare for your baby. This is called nesting, and it’s thought that the urge to organize comes from an instinctual desire to create a safe space for the new baby.  While it’s lovely to get all those little bodysuits folded, bottles sterilized, and sleep space set up before the big day, don’t overdo the physical labor. In fact, this is the perfect time to enlist your friends and family for help! (However, if you do need inspiration for putting those final touches on your baby’s room, browse our favorite nursery designs!)

Early labor sign #3: You stop gaining—or lose—weight.

If you’ve been steadily gaining weight during the third trimester as your body continues to nourish your baby, you may notice the number on the scale stops ticking upward in the days leading up to your due date. And, some parents-to-be actually lose between 1 and 3 pounds around this time thanks to lower levels of amniotic fluids and more frequent bathroom visits. (This is totally normal and won’t impact the baby’s weight.)

Early labor sign #4: Your cervix dilates.

The cervix is a thumb-long span of tissue that connects the vagina and the uterus (womb). During pregnancy, the cervix should remain long and closed. (Premature opening of the cervix, called cervical insufficiency or an incompetent cervix, is a serious concern.) However, as labor nears, the cervix starts to efface (shorten and thin out) and dilate (open). (Here’s more info on dilation and effacement.) You won’t necessarily feel these early changes, but some expecting parents do experience menstrual-like cramps during early dilation. More often than not, the first time many folks learn that their cervix is beginning to dilate is when their doctor does an exam and announces “We’re getting closer. You’re already 1 centimeter dilated!” The tricky part is that “closer” may mean hours…or a couple of weeks! When labor does come, the cervix will eventually dilate a full 10 centimeters (4 inches).

Early labor sign #5: You feel more fatigued than usual.

Don’t be surprised if one day you’re full of pep and the next…you’re totally spent. In that way, the end of the third trimester can look a lot like the first trimester…when you really needed a nap! Although sleeping can be challenging when you’re nine months pregnant, try your best to get some sleep and save your energy. (Follow our advice for help getting sleep while pregnant.) Being rested will come in very handy—after all, they call it labor for a reason.

Early labor sign #6: Your back pain worsens.

That dull ache in your back is here to tell you that your muscles and joints are stretching and shifting, getting ready for labor. Taking warm showers, going for leisurely walks, or asking your partner to massage your lower back can all help. But, if your back pain gets increasingly worse, please call your doctor or midwife… your baby might be arriving soon! 

Early labor sign #7: You’ve got diarrhea.

A day or two before labor begins, hormones called prostaglandins go to work to help soften (or ripen) your cervix so it can start to open. The downside? These same hormones may cause diarrhea. (Pregnancy sure is glamorous, isn’t it?!) The silver lining: Emptying your bowels allows your uterus to contract more efficiently during labor, so that’s a big win! Because diarrhea can cause dehydration, keep swigging water, and you’ll be fine!

Early labor sign #8: You’re getting clumsy.

Surprise: Being a klutz could be an early sign of labor! As your body readies for labor, you’ll experience an increase in the hormone relaxin, which helps widen your pelvis for birth. But because relaxin affects all your joints, that means other parts of your body can start to feel loose, too, causing you to be clumsier than usual. Watch your step!

Early labor sign #8: You’ll notice increased vaginal discharge.

Watery, sticky, thick…maybe even pink: Your vagina may release more secretions and mucus than you’re used to as your body practices lubricating your birth canal, making it easier for your baby to slide out when the time comes! The discharge may also be pieces of your mucus plug breaking off…more on that in a second! 

Early labor sign #9: You’ll experience “bloody show.”

During pregnancy, your cervix is sealed shut with a plug of sticky mucus…aka the mucus plug! When the cervix starts dilating (opening), the mucus plug starts to disintegrate and can release a thick, blood-tinged discharge a few days before labor begins. Despite its name, the bloody show should not present as bright red blood…so, if you see that, call your provider immediately.

Signs of Labor That Mean Labor Is Starting

Early signs of labor are a great heads-up that the real deal is coming soon. Of course, soon can mean hours…or days. When “real” labor starts, here’s what you’ll experience:

Sign labor is starting #1: You experience intense contractions.

Until now, you have likely been experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, which help the body prepare for labor, but don’t actually dilate your cervix. Unlike true labor, Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and unpredictable. They may be uncomfortable, but they’re not usually painful and they’re felt only in the abdomen. You can ease them by walking or changing position. When real contractions start, they’ll be stronger, more frequent, and will eventually come at regular intervals. Sometimes these first real labor contractions will feel like strong menstrual cramps, stomach upset, or bad back pain. And, hold onto your hat because there’s nothing you can do to stop these contractions...besides having the baby!

Sign labor is starting #2: Your water breaks.

When your baby is close to being born, the membranes of the amniotic sac (bag of waters) will break releasing amniotic fluid (rupture of membranes). As the fluid passes through the cervix and out your vagina, there may be noticeable wetness, though it could be anywhere from a trickle to a sitcom-like gush. No matter how you experience your water breaking, most parents-to-be go into labor within 12 hours after their water breaks. Only about 10% don’t go into labor on their own a day or so after their water breaks. (If your water breaks before the 37th week of pregnancy, it’s known as preterm or prelabor rupture of membranes or PROM.) Always tell your provider if you think you’re leaking fluid. The opening that lets the fluid out can also let infection up into the uterus and that could have a serious effect on your baby.

Which signs of labor mean it’s time to go to the hospital?

Generally speaking, contractions of increasing frequency and intensity are a sign labor is starting. But before you high-tail it to the hospital or birthing center, start timing your contractions—detailing how long they last, and how far apart they are. (When you have a contraction, you’ll feel cramping or pressure over your entire uterus and sometimes your back, too.) Your practitioner will want to know this info in order to advise you on when to head to the hospital—or if you are birthing at home, when the licensed midwife should come over.

Once you feel a few contractions in a row, start timing. If the tightness lingers for 30 seconds or more—bingo!—we’ve got labor contractions! Count the time between contractions from the start of one to the start of the next. Know that…

  • For first-time parents, head to the hospital if contractions last at least 45 to 60 seconds and come every 3 to 5 minutes over an hour-long stretch.

  • If this not your first baby, head to the hospital if contractions last at least 45 to 60 seconds and come every 5 to 7 minutes.

Regardless of the above, be prepared to go to the hospital immediately if:

  • You have significant bleeding

  • You notice the baby is moving less often

  • Your water breaks and you are not having contractions. (If you’re not yet having closely spaced contractions, it’s possible that your provider will suggest waiting a while longer at home.)

  • You have constant, severe pain with zero relief between contractions

Of course, never hesitate to give your doctor or midwife a ring if anything seems unusual or you’re unsure what to do. 

How long does labor last?

You may see signs of labor—like the loss of your mucus plug—as far in advance as three days before labor really kicks into gear. But that’s not real labor…yet. There are three phases of labor: early (or latent), active, and transitional. (Learn more about the stages of labor.)

  • First phase of labor: The first phase of labor occurs before your cervix is fully dilated, and it can last from several hours to as long as 20 hours. Early labor will often be the longest part of the birthing process. (Early labor tends to be quicker if you’ve had a baby before.)

  • Active labor: Here, your cervix is 4 or 5 centimeters dilated and contractions are more regular and last longer—and they’re stronger, too! The active stage of labor moves more quickly, averaging about four to eight hours.

  • Transitional labor: Home stretch! The transitional stage of labor is the final part of the active phase of labor and it’s when your cervix is between 8 to 10 centimeters dilated. Transitional labor lasts from 15 minutes to three hours.

Can you be in labor and not know it?

Since some of the early labor signs, like back pain, are indistinguishable from the other weird sensations of pregnancy, it’s possible your body will start labor without you knowing it. However, once you notice that your contractions are getting stronger, longer, and closer together, it’s time to spring into action. Likewise, your water breaking will be an undeniable sign that it’s go-time! 

Early Signs of Labor: Final Thoughts

Once you reach the final weeks of your pregnancy, you’re eager to meet your little one and every new sensation may seem like a sign of labor! Though some of these signs of labor might mean you still have days—or weeks!—to go, the big day will arrive soon enough. In the meantime, you can brush up on all things babies, like this life-changing method for soothing babies.

More on Labor and Delivery:

 

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.