Our focus is on how you, the partner, can help the birthing mom – but the top questions we get from you are about the signs of labor:
- How do you know when labor is beginning?
- How do you know labor is for real?
- Is it pre-labor?
- What’s pre-labor anyway?
We understand the need to know – we’ve been there 🙂 When labor kicks in, that’s when the action starts! That’s when YOUR job begins. So let’s run through the signs of labor, for both Early Labor and Active Labor.
What is early labor?
Early labor is the beginning of the first stage of labor. We like to call it the ‘Hey – we’re in labor!’ phase because it’s a time of anticipation & excitement. You’ve been waiting for months and FINALLY the finish line becomes a reality.
Early labor usually takes from several hours to a few days. BUT… it can take weeks too. As you might expect, it’s different for every mom. And it can be different from pregnancy to pregnancy.
It’s a time when hormonal changes are happening that prepare the body to birth and breastfeed.
Early labor can also be called pre-labor.
What are the early signs of labor?
The signs of early labor are:
- Braxton-Hicks contractions / painless tightening
- Irregular menstrual-like cramps (basically mild contractions)
- Gas-like discomfort
- Rectal pressure
- Pinkish vaginal discharge (‘show’)
The most well-known sign of early labor is the Braxton-Hicks contraction. It is an actual contraction – just not intense. They can be referred to as ‘practice contractions’ because the uterus is preparing itself.
Braxton-Hicks contractions can start as early as 6 weeks but that is not considered early labor. They are much more common in the second and third trimesters. They can feel like menstrual cramps – or they might be so mild that they’re missed completely.
Before early labor, contractions are mild, short and irregular. It becomes early labor when the contractions become consistent, starting at 20 minutes apart.
The contraction pattern during early labor ranges from 5-20 minutes apart. And which of the possible signs you see will be unique to your partner – and this pregnancy.
Thoughts on the term ‘false labor’
False labor is an old, misleading term for early labor. It implies that what’s happening is not real – but that is far from the truth! Real things are happening to prepare the body for birth and breastfeeding. And every contraction, no matter how mild, is preparing the uterus. Think of each contraction as a rep when working out. If you don’t do a rep, you gain nothing. The same goes for contractions.
In our eyes, there’s no such thing as ‘false labor’.
What is active labor?
Imagine all the signs of early labor – but BIGGER and BADDER. We call this the ‘Time to get down to business’ phase. The mood shifts from fun and excited to a bit more serious. This is when the hard work – for BOTH of you – begins.
What are the signs of active labor?
The signs of active labor are
- Contractions 3-5 minutes apart
- More intense backache
- Increased pelvic pressure
The contractions become strong and regular: 3-5 minutes apart. They last 45-60 seconds long. It all becomes more intense, and the mood shifts to more business-like and focused. The time for jokes & banter is past.
This is the time you’ll need to get into a rhythm with her. You’ll need to put your support strategies to use. And during each contraction, you will need to be ‘on’ and focused completely on her.
What happens next?
Most providers will suggest following the 4-1-1 rule to make the next step. When contractions are:
- consistently 4 minutes apart
- at least 1 minute long
- and this pattern lasts for at least 1 hour
- This is considered the time to leave for the birthing center or hospital. Some providers will suggest following a 3-1-1 rule too.
Trust your instincts for when it’s time to go (if you aren’t birthing at home). Remember that going from home to the birthing location is a disruption. It is normal for labor to slow down until she is settled again. If you have any questions, be sure to call your midwife or doctor.
And if you’re working with an experienced doula, she can give recommendations on when to leave or when to call your provider.