Signs of Labor and What to Expect

Signs of Labor and What to Expect

Labor looks different for everyone. There are three phases in the first stage of labor: early, active and transition. In each phase there are so many signs to look for that could indicate when labor begins, how it’s progressing, and when it would be a good time to head into the hospital or call your midwife if you’re having a homebirth. We will dive into what each phase can look like, what you may feel in your body, and the best thing to do in that phase to help cope with labor. 

Early Phase

In the Early Phase you can expect any of the following signs:

  • Backache (constant or with each contraction)
  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • Lower abdominal pressure
  • Indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • A sensation of warmth in the abdomen
  • Blood-tinged mucus discharge (bloody show)
  • Constantly needing to pee!

When early labor begins, your contractions will not be consistent, will feel like cramps and could be few and far between. But that is ok! Early labor usually lasts about 12 to 19 hours1, maybe longer if this is your first baby. This is the longest stage of labor, but is manageable. Here are some tips to get through this phase:

Make sure your hospital bag is ready. Call your birth team to let them know labor has started. Your birth team could be your OB/Midwife, support person(s), partner, and/or doula. 

This is usually not a time that you need to go to the hospital yet so go about your day as you normally would. Just ensure to rest, stay hydrated, and eat. 

Keep an eye on contractions. Note if they are changing in intensity, duration or frequency. You want to look for the 5-1-1 or 4-1-1 rule. Contractions every 5 or 4 minutes, lasting a minute or longer, consistently for an hour. This is a great indicator that you are moving out of the Early Phase of labor and into the Active Phase.

Active Phase

In the Active Phase you can expect any of the following signs:

  • Increasing pain and discomfort with contractions
  • Fatigue
  • Rupture of the membranes (water-breaking)
  • The urge to poop
  • The abdominal pressure is lower and more intense. You may start feel it in your butt and vaginal area during contractions

This is when the 5-1-1 or 4-1-1 rule comes in. With contractions closer together that means shorter breaks to rest and recover before the next one. This phase doesn’t last nearly as long as the Early Phase but can still be a few hours long. This is a great time to start transitioning over to the hospital if that’s where you’re birthing. Here are some tips to cope through the Active Phase:

Start some breathing exercises. You want to get into the habit of deep, mindful breathing to get through the contractions.

Stay on the move if you can. Gravity and movement help the baby descend! This can help keep the Active Phase from being longer than it needs to be. 

Take a shower or soak in the tub to help relax. 

Pee as often as you need to and if you have the urge to poop, please try! With an empty bladder and rectum, the baby has more space to move down through the cervix.

Call your doula. They can support you at home if you need help coping with contractions or can meet you at your place of birthing.

Transitional Phase

Here is what to expect once you are in the Transitional Phase:

  • Feeling very warm and sweaty or chilled and shaky
  • Crampy legs that may tremble uncontrollably
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Drowsiness between contractions
  • A tightening sensation in your throat or chest
  • The rectal pressure is intense and you may have the urge to push

This is the most difficult phase in labor, but it is the shortest! At this point you are exhausted, but this is where you start to push the baby out. The Transitional Phase lasts 30 minutes to 2 hours2. Here are some tips to push through this last phase:

Speak up. If your doula or support person’s once comforting hands now irritate you or words of affirmation are no longer working, don’t hesitate to speak up. 

Try to relax between contractions with slow, deep, rhythmic breathing. Keep your eye on the prize. That bundle of joy will soon be in your arms!

Try different positions for pushing. Do whatever feels most beneficial for your body and don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Labor is so unpredictable. You may experience some of the signs of labor, but not all. To ensure you have a great labor experience, you want to feel as prepared as possible. Knowing the signs of labor is a great start! Please use this article as a guide for yourself or loved ones when preparing for birth.


1 https://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/childbirth-and-beyond/labor-and-birth

2 https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/labor-and-birth/first-stage-of-labor/

Yvonna R

I love what I do and it is my passion to provide support and care for all women and black families.