Signs of Labor: Early Signs that Labour has Begun

There are a number of different signs and symptoms of labour that may indicate that it is not too far away. These can occur as much as a week or more before labour begins. You may also feel contractions that make you think you're experiencing the real thing, but turn out to be practice contractions.

Wondering whether you'll know when you are in early labour? You can find a list of the most common signs of labour here. But don't worry too much; your body will give you signals that you can recognise without a doubt.

What Is Labor? 

Labor, more commonly called childbirth, is the experience of delivering your baby from the warm and cozy home of your uterus to the outside world. You’ve probably been excitedly and anxiously awaiting this moment for quite some time, but it’s important to understand that labor is a slow, multistep process that’s unique for each woman and each pregnancy. That said, labor tends to follow a general pattern for most women. Knowing about what’s likely to happen can help you prepare for the big day ahead. 

When Does Labor Start? 

Although your due date is usually calculated according to the average length of pregnancy, which is 40 weeks for a full-term pregnancy, don’t expect your baby to arrive on the dot. A pregnancy can last between 41 and 42 weeks, which is referred to as late term, and even last longer than 42 weeks, which is called postterm. 

It's also not uncommon for labor to begin earlier than 40 weeks, such as at week 38 or 39. Going into labor before 37 weeks of pregnancy is called preterm labor. This sometimes stops on its own without leading to preterm birth but will always need immediate medical attention. 

Common Signs of Labour

Although every labour is different and there is no definite set of events, some common early signs of labour include:

  • Lightening Your baby drops lower into your pelvis in the weeks or hours before labour. This is called lightening because you may find breathing a little easier as your baby will no longer be pressing against your diaphragm. On the other hand, you may feel like you need to urinate more often.

  • A Change in Energy Levels You may be feeling extra tired or experiencing a sudden surge of energy in the days or weeks before labour. You might also have the urge to nest and get prepared for the baby.

  • Bloody Show You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked discharge called a bloody show. This is the mucus plug that sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It usually appears within the two weeks before labour, although it's not always noticeable.

  • Water Breaking Water breaking is one of the most common labour signs, usually taking place up to a day before delivery (but sometimes only during active labour), when the amniotic sac ruptures and releases the fluid inside. You could experience a gush of water or just a trickle. If your water breaks, notify your doctor or midwife. Learn more about water breaking signs and its causes.

  • Early Contractions These feel like menstrual cramps every 20 to 30 minutes, gradually becoming stronger and more frequent. When the contractions occur every three to five minutes, you're in active labour. Time your contractions, or have someone time them for you.

  • Diarrhoea Loose bowels could be an extra indicator that you're going into labour.

Definitely call your doctor or midwife if you notice bright red bleeding (not pale pink or dark brown), if your water breaks (especially if the fluid is green or brown or has a foul odour), if your baby is less active, or if you have a headache, vision problems, or sudden swelling, particularly in your face and hands. Also call your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms before 37 weeks when they could signal preterm labour.

Stages of Labor 

Childbirth is broken down into three stages: 

  • Labor. This first stage is divided into two phases, early labor and active labor. The main differences between the two phases are how your contractions feel and the timing of your contractions. Early labor is characterized by mild contractions, whereas active labor has stronger, more regular contractions. 

  • Pushing and delivery of your baby. This stage is often shorter than the previous stage; however, this is the stage that requires more work from you, as you’ll be pushing your baby out. 

  • Delivery of the placenta. This is the shortest stage. You may still feel contractions, which help separate the placenta from the uterine wall and then move the placenta into the birth canal. A few pushes can help you deliver it, and once your uterus fully contracts your labor is complete. 

 Signs and Symptoms of Early Labor 

Early labor can be unpredictable in terms of duration. It may be hours or even days before you progress to active labor, especially if this is your first baby. This time will usually become shorter with subsequent deliveries. Until your contractions become more regular and more intense, or your water breaks, try to stay relaxed—active labor will eventually start. Although every pregnancy is different, you may experience the following signs of early labor, some more subtle than others: 

  • Nesting. It’s perfectly normal to experience a sudden surge of energy in the days or weeks before labor. You might also have the urge to “nest” and prepare your home for the baby. Although nesting can begin any time during your pregnancy, many women experience it just before labor. Don’t overexert yourself—try to take it easy. 

  • Lightening. Your baby drops lower into your pelvis in the weeks, days, or hours before labor. This is called lightening because you may feel lighter, and find breathing a little easier, after the baby drops and isn’t pressing on your diaphragm.  

  • Mild contractions. You may feel mild contractions that occur 5 to 15 minutes apart and last for between 60 and 90 seconds. The pain or pressure that you feel may start in your back and move down to your abdomen. The contractions may be less than five minutes apart by the end of early labor.  

  • Effacement. Your cervix thins, softens, and shortens completely before vaginal delivery. You may feel mild contractions or nothing at all. 

  • Dilation. Your cervix begins to widen and open until it’s fully dilated. Dilation happens slowly at first but speeds up once you’re in active labor. 

  • Loss of your mucus plug. You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked vaginal discharge sometimes called a bloody show. This is what sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It often appears several days before labor begins, although it’s not always noticeable. 

 Signs and Symptoms of Active Labor 

Active labor is when things start to really happen, and it’s when you should head to the hospital. Active labor can last from four to eight hours, and sometimes even longer. By this time your cervix may likely be dilated from 6 to 10 centimeters, and you will notice stronger signs and symptoms that you’re in labor:  

  • Water breaking. The fluid-filled amniotic sac that surrounded your baby during pregnancy may rupture several hours before labor or during labor. You may feel a discharge of watery fluid that comes as a trickle or a gush. Stages of Labor 

  • Strong and regular contractions. As your uterus begins to contract more frequently before active labor, you may feel pain in your back or pelvis. The contractions will be more regular and closer together, as close as 3 minutes, with each one lasting around 45 seconds. Timing your contractions can help you keep track of your progress. 

  • Leg cramps. You may feel your legs cramp when you go into active labor. 

  • Back pain or pressure. You could experience backache or a heavy, achy feeling as the pressure on your back increases. 

  • Nausea. Some women feel nauseated as active labor begins. 

What to Do When in Early Labour

Don't panic if you only experience a few signs of labour approaching, because many women don't notice all of them. If you think you are in labour, call your doctor or midwife, whether it's day or night. Tell them your symptoms of labour, and keep in mind you may not need to go to the hospital immediately. Your doctor or midwife will give you guidance based on your labour signs and your individual situation.

Realising you're in labour can bring feelings ranging from excitement to disbelief or apprehension. Try to stay calm and focused. Arrange to have your partner or a family member with you to help record symptoms and stages of labour, keep you company, and get you to the hospital when the time comes.

How To Tell Real & False Labour Signs Apart

In your third trimester you may get ‘false' or ‘practice' contractions known as Braxton Hicks. These contractions may feel like the real thing, but if they don't get stronger and closer together or come with other signs of labour, there is no need to call your doctor. These practice contractions are just one of the ways your body prepares for labour and nothing to worry about.

Keep an eye out for specific symptoms that point towards real signs of labour, such as the bloody show or any of the symptoms above. But to help you tell the difference between true and false labour contractions at a glance, see our table below.

True LabourFalse Labour
Contractions are regular and follow a predictable pattern (such as every eight minutes).Contractions are irregular and unpredictable, occurring, for example, in intervals of ten minutes, then six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc.
You experience three types of progression: contractions become closer in time, longer, and stronger.No progression is seen over time in the closeness of the contraction intervals, length, or strength of the contractions.
Each contraction is felt starting at the lower back, radiating around to the front, low in the groin.Contractions are felt as a generalised abdominal tightening.
A change in activity or position will not slow or stop contractions.A change in activity or position may cause contractions to slow or stop.


When to Call Your Healthcare Provider and Go to the Hospital If you have any doubt about whether you’re in labor, call your healthcare provider for advice. Be sure to call your healthcare provider or go to the hospital if you’re experiencing any of these signs: 

  • Your water has broken but you’re not experiencing any contractions, and especially if the fluid is green or brown, or has a foul odor 

  • You notice bright red vaginal bleeding (not pale pink or dark brown discharge of the mucus plug) coupled with abdominal pain 

  • You have a headache, vision problems, or sudden swelling—all of which may indicate a complication called preeclampsia 

  • You’re in constant severe pain without any feelings of relief between contractions 

  • You feel your baby move less 

  • You believe you may be in preterm labor. 

False labour pain can be triggered by a variety of causes, such as dehydration or a full bladder, or even when the mother and baby are active. But if you feel any of the symptoms of labour or notice that your contractions are getting closer together and more intense, then consult your healthcare provider. Keep your maternity hospital bag handy before-hand since you won't find time for packing.

As you reach the end of your third trimester of pregnancy, the big day is coming up. To help you feel prepared, see our labour pain relief tips to help reduce any anxiety you may feel when you notice those early labour signs. You're about to bring your baby into the world. Use Pampers Premium Care Diapers for providing comfort and care that your newborn deserves.


Signs of early labor may indicate that labor is near or has begun. These signs can include:  

  • Nesting, which is a sudden burst of energy to get everything ready before your baby arrives.  
  • Lightening, when your baby drops lower into your pelvis, relieving some pressure from your diaphragm.  
  • Mild contractions that you may feel in your back and abdomen that happen 5 to 15 minutes apart and last for between 60 and 90 seconds.  
  • Effacement, when your cervix thins, softens, and shortens.  
  • Dilation, when your cervix begins to open.  
  • Loss of your mucus plug, which you’ll notice as a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked vaginal discharge. 

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