How to Recognize Early Labor Symptoms

Braxton Hicks Contraction
Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock
Worried about early labor? While it can sometimes be stopped with a combo of meds and bed rest, it's important to be on the lookout for warning signs so you can call your doctor ASAP if you think there's a problem. Here's all you need to know about the signs of early labor. 
Blend Images/Getty
Blend Images/Getty

Pelvic Pressure

Lightening is defined as descent of the baby into the pelvis, which can happen as early as two to four weeks prior to labor. If it happens, it's typically accompanied by increased frequency of urination, as well as pelvic and rectal pressure. On a more positive note, you'll likely experience less shortness of breath as the baby settles down and away from your diaphragm.

gpointstudio/Shutterstock
gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Loss of the Mucous Plug

This can occur anywhere from one to two weeks or just hours before labor — or not at all. And it's not really a plug, but a glob of thick mucus expelled through the cervical canal and vagina. When tinged with blood, this glob is called "bloody show." Sometimes this loss is followed by mild contractions. 

"I began to have bad cramping and then this need to urinate," says Lorraine Sheridan of Port Washington, N.Y., of her first pregnancy. "I went to the bathroom, and then this plug popped out of me!"

It can be hard to know when those contractions are the real thing. Here are some tips to help you figure out whether you are actually in labor or whether you're experiencing false labor symptoms.

Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock
Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

Braxton Hicks

Otherwise known as false contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions often start three to four weeks or more before delivery. The irregular, mild tightness or cramping, usually felt in the lower abdomen, lasts a few seconds and may increase during the night and while exercising. Unlike true labor contractions, Braxton Hicks do not progress in frequency.

Science Photo Library/Ian Hooton/Getty Images
Science Photo Library/Ian Hooton/Getty Images

Water Breaking

The amniotic fluid sac, also known as the "bag of waters" that surrounds the baby, spontaneously ruptures before labor for some women. When it happens, they report, a gush of warm fluid runs down their legs. Labor began this way for Yolanda Kolinski of Boston. "It felt like a balloon with warm water that suddenly popped," she says.

The "rupture" can also begin as a slow trickle. But recognizing the difference between slowly leaking amniotic fluid and leaking urine isn't always easy. "Amniotic fluid should be clear, with a slightly musty odor," says Robert H. Hayashi, M.D., director and professor of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Call your doctor if you think your water might have broken.

 

Ian Hooton/Getty Images
Ian Hooton/Getty Images

True Contractions

One sure sign of labor is the onset of contractions that progress in intensity, frequency, and duration. Unlike some false contractions, no shifting in position or walking will stop the real ones. Hayashi says that the simplest distinction between true contractions and false labor pains is this: "True contractions cause such significant discomfort in the low back or abdomen that you can't talk." Many women describe true contractions as extremely painful menstrual cramps.

Kolinski knew the difference. After her water broke, contractions began — and the sensation was like no other she'd ever felt. "They came around from my back," she says. True contractions gradually increase in frequency to every 1 1/2 to three minutes, each lasting 60 or even 90 seconds.

 

Early labor happens anytime before 37 weeks. Learn about the signs and different ways your doctor might try to slow down the labor.

Image Source/Veer
Image Source/Veer

Leaking or Discharge

Blood or fluid leaking from your vagina, or a change in your discharge, could be an early labor sign. (If the discharge looks brownish, it could be your mucous plug, which protects your cervix during pregnancy). Call your doctor right away if you have this symptom; your water may have broken.

Lucy Schaeffer
Lucy Schaeffer

Cramps and Backache

You may have period-like cramps, with or without diarrhea. You also may experience a low, dull, backache; make sure to call your doctor if this occurs.

PhotoMediaGroup/Shutterstock
PhotoMediaGroup/Shutterstock

Next Steps: Lie Down & Relax

If you're experiencing any of the early labor symptoms outlined here, find a quiet place where you can lie down, relax, catch your breath, and prepare for next steps. While you're resting, drink a couple of glasses of water or juice. Dehydration often causes cramping and water can ease your symptoms.

Have your partner or a friend sit with you for an hour or so to help you track your early labor symptoms. If your pain gets worse or doesn't dissipate after an hour, call your doctor or head for the hospital.

If signs of early labor do go away, take it easy for the rest of the day, but be sure to speak with your doctor. Draw yourself to a warm tub, ring your favorite takeout joint for dinner, and put your feet up!

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