What are Early Labor Signs?

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  • Written By: Amy Hunter
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2019
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It is important to recognize early labor signs so that there is plenty of time to head to the hospital. In cases of preterm labor, or other problems, doctors can intervene more successfully if one gets to the hospital early. Preterm labor is defined as any labor that occurs prior to 37 weeks of gestation. Preterm labor has the same symptoms as term labor, and, when caught early enough, medical intervention can prevent preterm birth.

Two common early labor signs are not signs that the woman herself will notice. During the end of the pregnancy, the healthcare provider will perform a vaginal exam at each appointment. She will note whether the cervix is thinning out and dilating in preparation for labor. The cervix thins, or effaces, as the body prepares for labor. The cervix will reach 100 percent effacement prior to a vaginal delivery.

The healthcare provider measures the dilation by centimeters. The dilation is slower in first time moms, and toward the beginning of the process. It is not unusual for a pregnant woman to be two to three centimeters dilated for weeks prior to delivery. She will not deliver vaginally until dialation is 10 centimeters.


The expectant mother can observe other early labor signs. The baby will lighten, or drop, prior to labor beginning. In preparation for delivery, the baby will move so that his head is pressing against the top of the cervix, which creates a sensation of pressure for the expectant mom.

Another early labor sign is the loss of the mucous plug. The mucous plug is in place to prevent bacteria from entering the uterus during pregnancy. Expulsion of the mucous plug is often the earliest sign of labor. The mucous plug is typically stringy and may be brown or clear with streaks of blood.

The water breaking is a commonly recognized sign of labor, however it is not one of the reliable early labor signs, and, in fact, the doctor or midwife often break the water manually after active labor has started. For those whose water breaks early in the process, it may come out in a gush of fluid, or it may trickle out slowly and be less noticeable. Many women believe that they have become incontinent when actually, their water has broken. Once the water breaks, it is important to notify a healthcare provider immediately, as this opens the uterus up for infection, and most doctors will want the baby delivered within 24 hours or so.

Many women experience Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout their pregnancy and are concerned that they will not recognize real labor. Unlike Braxton-Hicks contractions, labor contractions are rhythmic, and regardless of how long they last, and the time between each one, they will develop a pattern and gradually become closer together. Braxton-Hicks contractions are confined to the stomach and uterus, unlike contractions during labor. Labor contractions will include pain in the back, and no amount of changing positions or moving around will provide relief.


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