Updated: Jun 25
How to know when labor is really starting.
And what you should do next…
The short answer is:
When you feel tightening of your belly like Braxton Hicks, and IT DOESN’T STOP, you’re probably in early labor.
BUT, it’s a bit more complex than that.
Labor appears in many different ways.
*I am a certified childbirth educator and doula. I am not a medical professional. The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and do not render medical advice. Always consult your care provider.
SIGNS THAT YOU’RE IN LABOR
Sensations of tightening wrap around low belly - similar to Braxton Hicks but stronger and longer
Uterine surges or waves (commonly known as contractions) 4-20 minutes apart, lasting 30-60 seconds
Cramping in lower back - similar to period cramps
Discharge - more than usual, possibly bloody
Nausea or vomiting
Able to hold conversations between waves
Feeling excited, energetic, or anxious
Mucus plug (can happen days or weeks before)
Water breaks / water releases - could be a gush or a trickle
WHAT TO DO IN EARLY LABOR
It’s finally time! Your body is preparing for the final phase of pregnancy and birth. There are probably many emotions buzzing around, feelings of excitement and maybe anxiety. This is a wonderful time, but use it wisely! Early labor can span over a few hours, a day, or even multiple days. Take this time to rest as much as you can and spend you time doing activities that make you feel good, so your birthing hormones can flow.
Here are some suggestions for early labor:
Hydrate - drink water!
Take a gentle walk
Watch a movie
Cuddle with a loved one
Read birth affirmations
Sway on birth ball to open pelvis
WHAT TO DO DURING UTERINE WAVES / SURGES
(ALSO KNOWN AS CONTRACTIONS)
In early labor, you’ll likely be able to hold conversations and continue with activities during uterine waves. Sometimes you may need to focus more to ensure that you’re releasing any tension.
Here are some things you can do during waves:
Breathe deeply into your diaphragm, in and out through your nose
Relax your jaw - massaging it can help
Visualize your pelvis and birth path softening and opening
Sway on your birth ball or leaning over the couch or your partner
Walk around the house
Repeat your favorite affirmation
Sing or hum
THINGS TO CONSIDER IF LABOR STARTS WITH YOUR WATER BREAKING
Only about 15% of labors begin with the amniotic sack releasing the water. If you are a part of this small percentage, this is still perfectly healthy and normal. Here are the things to consider…
The first thing to do is check the color and odor of the fluid. It should be clear or yellowish without much smell at all. If it has a greenish or brown color and smells foul, it could be a sign of meconium (baby poop), and you’d want to get to a hospital to have it checked out. The risk of meconium in the amniotic fluid is that the baby could inhale some of it into their lungs. Meconium is very sticky and can make breathing difficult once the baby is born. Meconium is only passed into the amniotic fluid in about 10% of births, and not all of those babies inhale it.
The amniotic sack is the baby’s sterile bubble. It prevents any bacteria from the outside world to enter into the baby’s body. One the waters release, that protective barrier is open. In one sense, this is good, because vaginal bacteria is very important as the foundation of your baby’s immune system. (If you tested positive for Group B Strep, there are more factors to consider.) On the other hand, you don’t want to be introduce foreign bacteria because it increases the risk of infection. During this time, it’s important to avoid or minimize vaginal exams/cervical checks. You may not want to sit in a bath tub either, but showers are totally safe.
Not everybody starts having uterine waves or surges (also known as contractions) right when their water breaks. Often times, labor takes a little while to get started. This is perfectly natural. If you’re planning to give birth in a hospital, they’ll probably want to start some induction methods if you’re not having contractions within 24 hours. With a midwife at home or in a birth center, they’ll generally wait 3 days before suggesting induction, but they might offer some natural methods to urge labor to get going. Some people choose to wait up to a week, but usually labor will start on its own before then.
Birth unfolds in so many different ways, and yours will be unique and perfect for you. This is the dawning of the best adventure of your life. May you summon your birthing wisdom and discover yourself as the powerful mother you are.
I’d love to hear how early labor was for you. You can also join our Facebook group to share with the community, East Bay Pregnant & New Moms.
Also check out the Postpartum Wellness Toolkit to help you plan for optimal healing and support during the first weeks with your little one.