Am I really in labor? – Signs and symptoms of early labor
As you approach your baby’s due date, you will probably be paying very close attention to little signs that can indicate early labor is close. You may have noticed that your baby has ‘dropped’ or that you are experiencing a surge in productive energy that many call ‘nesting.’ But when will labor actually start and how will you know that you are REALLY in labor? A few weeks ago we discussed the signs and symptoms of prodromal labor, and as a continuation, we are sharing some insights to help you learn more about what to expect when you are in the earliest phase of true labor.
What is early labor?
Labor is divided into three stages including the complete dilation and effacement of your cervix (early, active, and transitional labor is also collectively called the 1st stage), pushing and the birth of your baby (2nd stage), and the delivery of your placenta. (3rd stage) Early labor, sometimes called latent labor, is the beginning sub-phase of the first stage of labor. Early labor is usually the longest part of labor with contractions thinning (effacing) and opening (dilating) your cervix to about 4cm.
How will I know if I’m in early labor?
The latent phase of labor may last only a few hours or possibly up to a few weeks (Yes, seriously!), as your body prepares to birth your baby. Everyone will perceive and experience early labor differently, and you may be alert to some, all, or even none of the following symptoms of early labor. Certain women have a very long latent phase of labor with quite mild symptoms, and others may experience very distinct and discrete early labor symptoms. We have found that the following common signs may signal you are in the earliest stage of labor:
- Menstrual-like cramps and lower backache
Many women report (sometimes in hindsight) that the absolute first symptoms of early labor were quite mild ‘period-like’ cramps and other menstrual symptoms like a dull lower backache or radiating muscle soreness.
- Contractions that increase in frequency and intensity
A much clearer sign of labor is consistent contractions that increase in intensity and frequency. You may want to time your contractions for a period of time to figure out if there is a pattern, and this may help you decipher if you are in early labor.
- Loss of your mucus plug or change in vaginal discharge
In addition to the above symptoms, and as your cervix thins and opens, you may experience an increase or change in vaginal discharge or the dislodging of your mucus plug. This ‘big cervix booger’ acted as a protective barrier, and is naturally displaced due to normal physiological changes just before or during early labor.
- You are leaking fluid or your water breaks
Unlike in the movies or on TV, the first sign of labor is not usually the dramatic gush of your waters rupturing. In fact, only about 15% of women will experience their waters breaking before any other labor signs. But if you are having some other labor symptoms and notice leaking fluid, or even a gush of liquid, this is probably a much more distinct sign that you are in labor.
*** It’s important to note that the onset of labor at 37 weeks and beyond is considered normal and healthy, but if you think you may be experiencing early labor symptoms before 37 weeks, you may be in preterm labor. It is important that you contact your care provider with any and all concerns you may have regarding your pregnancy and birth. The information we are providing is from our experience, opinion, and research, but is in no way a substitute for medical advice. ***
What should I do during early labor?
Hopefully, you have discussed with your partner and care provider the steps you should take once you believe to be experiencing early labor. Since latent labor may last a long time, you may want to try and distract yourself. Focusing too much on early labor symptoms may drain your energy, and you need focus and strength as your labor becomes more intense. Early labor is also a good time to rest, eat, and hydrate. Take it easy and know that your body and baby are working together to prepare for birth.
Congratulations, you will be meeting your sweet baby very soon! What was your early labor experience(s)? What advice would you give expectant moms about early labor?