So, you’ve been very busy going about this awesome task of growing a baby.
Now for the next question: how do you get this beautiful being out of you?
As your due date approaches, you’re naturally wondering about the signs of labor to watch out for, as well as what happens once labor officially kicks into gear.
We all go through labor (and pregnancy) in our own unique way.
Luckily, there are many common experiences — and it can really help to know about them ahead of time.
Read on for your complete guide to labor and the signs that it’s about to happen.
In this article: 📝
- What are the stages of labor?
- What are some signs that labor is nearing?
- How does labor feel in the beginning?
- What are the signs of active labor?
- What is precipitous labor?
- What are the signs of preterm labor at 35 weeks?
- What are the signs of labor at 40 weeks of pregnancy?
- How to prepare for labor
What are the stages of labor?
So how does this labor thing even work?
The first thing to know is that it’s divided into four phases.
We’ll talk you through each in a moment.
The second thing?
Labor doesn’t always go as planned.
And that’s OK.
Newborn babies have a habit of arriving when and how they want to.
So be gentle with yourself.
You’re doing a pretty amazing thing here, regardless of the details.
With that in mind, let’s explore the different stages of labor and how things (sorta kinda) progress.
First stage of labor
As with so many things in life, the most challenging part of labor is getting started.
The first stage of labor is the part where your cervix dilates before you start pushing.
This stage is the longest as you and your baby are getting ready.
The first stage is made up of these chapters:
Also referred to as “early labor,” the latent phase is when contractions start kicking into gear.
Your job is to time them.
At this point, they’ll last for 30 to 45 seconds, with rests of up to thirty minutes in between.
As things progress, they’ll get more regular, frequent, and intense.
Your other job?
We know — easier said than done.
But try to rest as much as you can — walk, eat, take a shower, or do things to distract yourself and stay calm.
You don’t need to rush to the hospital just yet.
(We’ll give you the lowdown on how to know when it’s time here.
During this latent phase, the contractions help your cervix (the opening between your vagina and uterus) to widen (dilate) up to six centimeters.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, early labor tends to last between eight and twelve hours, but this is just a gauge.
Towards the end of the latent phase, the time between contractions starts speeding up to around every three to four minutes.
Remember, bending forward helps.
OK, time to get to the spot where you’re going to have this baby!
If your water has not broken (officially called “rupture of membranes”), your medical team steps in, so you don’t have to worry about it.
During active labor, your cervix dilates to six to ten centimeters.
Contractions last up to a minute with three to five-minute gaps between them.
And yes, they’re going to start getting more intense.
As the name suggests, this is the passage from one stage of labor to the next — your contractions remain regular but are much closer together.
They’ll be a minute to a minute and a half long, with short rests in between.
Your medical team will closely monitor your cervix — the aim is ten centimeters wide — as well as your baby’s heartbeat.
And you may feel some interesting symptoms at this point, including nausea and hot flashes.
When you are in the active phase, the clock starts, and you should go into the expulsion phase within two hours.
Any longer, and your medical team will advise a different approach.
Second stage of labor
Welcome to the pushing (or “expulsion” 😲) stage.
By now, if there are no complications, your cervix is fully dilated and effaced, and contractions are starting to play second fiddle to the next step: pushing!
But how do you actually do this whole pushing thing?
Don’t worry, we give you the full lowdown on how to push during labor here.
The good news is our bodies are pretty great at letting us know when we need to push.
Your obstetric team is monitoring you and your baby and will guide you through the whole process.
But this is teamwork, and you’re allowed to change your mind about your birth preferences at any given time.
And then, after an impressive effort on your part, the head of your little royal starts to appear.
This rather miraculous process is called crowning.
From here, your ObGyn or midwife assists in making sure that your baby travels through the birth canal as smoothly as possible.
After that, the rest of your perfect peanut appears, and the umbilical cord is cut.
Your baby is quickly cleaned and assessed. It is a bonus if your baby can get some mama chest time as soon as possible.
Third stage of labor
The baby is out, but you’re not done yet, mama.
Now your body gears up to dispel the placenta.
Mild contractions over the next half an hour get the job done.
Your team may have to help the uterus a little if your body is feeling exhausted.
(If you have a c-section, don’t worry — the doctor who performs the operation also removes the placenta.)
The team double-checks that everything is out, and the next thing you know, you’re a proud mama!
Fourth stage of labor
This one’s crucial — it’s your recovery.
After all the doing, it’s time to be.
In the hour or two after birth, your healthcare team:
- Repairs any tears or episiotomies (surgical cuts)
- Stitches you up if you’ve had a C-section
- Continues to monitor your vitals and bleeding
- Makes sure you’ve delivered all of the placenta
You might still be experiencing mild contractions during this stage.
Simultaneously, your baby is getting all the attention they need.
Be aware that you’ll probably have irregular contractions for several days after.
This is because your uterus is involuting (fancy term for returning to the way it was before pregnancy).
What are some signs that labor is nearing?
Alright, so we’ve gone through every stage of labor.
But what happens before all that?
What are the signs that your little one’s arriving any minute now?
While the first signs of labor approaching won’t be the same for everyone, there are some telltale ones to look out for.
Losing your mucus plug
When your cervix starts to dilate (widen) and efface (softens and thins), the mucus plug that has been keeping your little one safe from infection no longer fits snugly into its cervical space.
You might notice some mucus (more jelly-like and stringy compared to normal vaginal discharge) in your underwear.
Or you might notice nothing at all if you lose the mucus plug gradually.
Losing your mucus plug can mean that labor is anywhere from hours to weeks away.
And some only lose it when they’re already in labor.
So, the mucus plug can be a sign that labor is near, but it’s not the most reliable one.
If you lose your mucus plug before 37 weeks of pregnancy, you should speak to your ObGyn.
The bloody show
This sign is very connected to losing your mucus plug and also has to do with what’s happening with your cervix.
When your cervix widens, thins, and softens in preparation for labor, it can affect the blood vessels in the area.
This can result in a bit of blood, sometimes mixed with mucus.
While it’s normal to see a little blood toward the end of your pregnancy, heavy bleeding is a signal that something else is up.
Check-in with your doctor if this happens.
Your baby’s being incredibly well-behaved in there
If your baby starts moving less than normal, it could mean that labor is imminent.
This is because your growing baby is just about outgrowing its temporary home in your uterus.
The problem is, decreased fetal movement can also be a sign of fetal distress, so make sure to monitor your baby’s movements daily.
While a slow down in movement is normal at the end of pregnancy, you’ll still want to feel ten movements every two hours while doing a kick count.
If you don’t feel ten movements, call your healthcare provider for more advice.
Contractions might be a sign that you’re in early labor, but you could also be experiencing prodromal labor, known as Braxton Hicks contractions.
Prodromal labor (AKA false labor) can feel a whole lot like the real thing, but it’s not really.
If your contractions come and go rather than getting more intense and closer together, that’s probably prodromal labor.
These happen in the second or more commonly third trimesters and can come and go — frustrating, we know!
The upside is that these contractions are helping your baby get into the ideal position.
They normally occur once or twice in an hour, last for a minute or so, and stop when you move, rest, or change your position.
And they are completely irregular.
[Head here] for all you need to know about the different kinds of pre-labor contractions here.
Uncommon signs of labor
And then there are some signals that you may never have thought were connected to your baby’s imminent arrival.
We’ll take you through the FAQs related to the labor signs that you may not have expected.
(And while they’re “uncommon” in the sense that we don’t talk about them a lot, they’re actually experiences that many women go through.)
Is an upset stomach a sign of labor?
Yep, diarrhea can be a sign that labor is on its way.
It all has to do with prostaglandins, hormone-like compounds in your body that prepare you for labor.
While they’re loosening up the muscles needed for labor, they may loosen up some other muscles as well.
What about flu-like symptoms?
Some mamas-to-be do report having flu-like symptoms as labor approaches.
There’s not much scientific evidence that flu-like symptoms are a sign that labor is arriving, but that doesn’t mean the two don’t have a link.
If you’re feeling ill, talk to your doctor about your symptoms so that they can get you through your labor safely.
Do you lose weight before you go into labor?
Yes, some people lose up to 3 lbs.
And there are different reasons for this.
Some of it is water weight.
Nope, you’re not imagining it — you could very well be peeing more as that growing peanut puts pressure on your bladder.
You might also be feeling lighter due to something called lightening.
This is when your baby drops lower into your pelvis, and this can change the shape and feel of your abdomen.
(We’ll take you through all the details here.)
Can being clumsy be a sign of labor?
Hard to hold a cup or walk without bumping into furniture?
You have something to blame!
Clumsiness as labor approaches has to do with your ovaries and placenta releasing a hormone called relaxin.
It’s aptly named — relaxin’s job is to relax your joints and tendons in preparation for birth, but it can also make it harder to control your limbs and balance.
And what is this nesting thing?
Towards the end of your third trimester, you might suddenly feel the need to organize everything in preparation for your new arrival.
Leave no sock drawer unturned!
Just make sure you take time to rest in between cleaning bouts.
How does labor feel in the beginning?
First, let’s talk contractions.
Everyone’s experience is slightly different.
This tightening (and releasing) in your uterus may feel like anything from a dull ache to intense pressure.
Some women experience it as bad period pain.
Contractions tend to go in a wave-like motion from the top to the bottom of your uterus. And they’ll become more intense as labor goes on.
(We’ll take you through the details of what contractions feel like here.)
And then there’s your water breaking.
You might feel a gush of fluid from your vagina, or it might be a barely noticeable trickle.
It’s made up of amniotic fluid — that’s the magic liquid in the amniotic sac that’s been protecting your baby all this time.
For about 10% of pregnant people, the water breaks before labor starts (called prelabor rupture of membranes.
For others, it happens while labor’s already in full swing, either on its own or with the help of your doctor or nurse.
Once you’re in active labor, you have the option to receive pain relief.
As the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (ACOG) tells us, pain medication during labor is safe for you and your baby — and whether you choose to have it or not is 100% up to you.
An effective method of pain relief is an epidural, which is an injection you’re given in your back that numbs your lower half, including your abdomen, back, and legs.
In most cases, having one means that you’ll feel little to no pain.
You will be awake, though, and able to feel pressure during pushing.
There are other medication options, too.
So talk to your healthcare team ahead of time and discuss your preferences, as well as if there is any reason why you shouldn’t take medication.
And as is the case with all your birth preferences, you are allowed to change your mind in the moment.
This is your experience and nobody else’s, and it’s completely normal for plans to change.
What are the signs of active labor?
So now for the big question: when should you go to hospital (or to wherever you’ve planned to have your baby)?
You may have heard the 411 rule:
Go to the hospital when your contractions are:
- Four minutes apart
- Lasting at least one minute
- And this happens for at least one hour
(There’s also the 511 rule — same thing, except the contractions need to be five minutes apart.
It’s best to talk to your healthcare team ahead of time so that you’re all on the same page about which method to follow.)
Once you’ve arrived at the spot where your baby’s going to be born, your healthcare team will monitor your contractions and your baby’s heart rate to see that everything’s on track.
What is precipitous labor?
For some people, labor is really fast — this is called precipitous labor.
Here, labor starts and ends (with the birth of your baby) within three hours.
And while this can sound like a dream, it can be quite scary.
Contractions can come on fast, be more intense, and leave you (and baby) little break in between.
If this happens, get to your birthing center or hospital as soon as you can, or to the nearest clean and safe spot where your baby can be born.
It’s still totally possible to have a healthy, happy baby!
We’ll take you through all the details of precipitous labor here.
What are the signs of preterm labor at 35 weeks?
Some babies like to make an early appearance.
Preterm labor is labor that starts before 37 weeks.
Thanks to the remarkable advances of medical science, even babies that are born very early (after 28 weeks) have a chance of growing into healthy adults!
So if you notice signs that you’re about to go into labor early, talk to your healthcare team ASAP.
There’s so much they can do to look after you and your baby in this situation, including giving you steroids to strengthen your baby’s lungs, ensuring infections are managed and treated, and slowing down labor contractions.
Here are the signs to watch out for before 37 weeks:
- Bad cramps in the abdomen
- Dull, lower back pain that comes and goes, or is constant
- More than six uterine contractions in an hour, or contractions that come on without warning
- Vaginal discharge that is mucousy, watery or bloody
What are the signs of labor at 40 weeks of pregnancy?
39 weeks pregnant and no signs of labor?
As you start to get beyond your due date and your little one is not that keen to make an appearance, things can get stressful.
First up — breathe.
It’s good practice. 😉
The signs of labor at week 41 are the same signs that you’ll experience at other times of your pregnancy.
But there may be a concern that your baby is too big to fit through the birth canal.
In most cases, you’ll be seeing your doctor once a week if not more at the end of pregnancy, so you’ll be able to keep them updated on any labor signs you might be experiencing (or not).
There are some risks that come with babies being born past their term — and the sooner you get medical attention, the better.
(We take you through all the details here.)
If your doctor is concerned, they might look at inducing labor, either through medications or techniques like breaking your water for you.
And if you’re wondering if you can induce labor yourself, well, there are methods that have been used for centuries all over the world.
Unfortunately, there’s not always concrete research about how effective they are — so it’s always best to check in with your doctor first.
Here are some of the common theories about DIY labor induction (your doctor or midwife may have suggestions of their own) and what the science has to say about them:
Having sex to induce labor
Is this really a thing?
And are there any risks?
The jury’s out as to whether having sex to induce labor really works.
This study says maybe, and this one probably not.
But provided you’re in the mood, your doctor hasn’t advised you otherwise, and your water hasn’t broken yet, why not go ahead?
Castor oil for labor
You might have heard that taking castor oil can help kickstart labor.
The theory behind this is that it stimulates the bowels (it’s commonly used as a laxative) and may do the same for your uterus.
But it may not be the best bet here.
While castor oil might cause uterine contractions, these are likely linked to what’s happening in your digestive system rather than true labor.
And there are side effects — like really painful diarrhea.
So best not to try this one without a doctor’s supervision.
Evening primrose oil for labor
This oil comes from a pretty North American flower and can be ingested as a pill or applied directly to the cervix.
Some early research has shown that evening primrose oil might be beneficial.
But the issue here is that there’s simply not enough conclusive evidence.
So this one’s best navigated with your doctor.
Raspberry Leaf Tea
The claim here is that raspberry leaf tea may help shorten labor.
So is there any truth to it?
This study from 1999 seems to think so — as do 63% of midwives in the U.S.
The idea is to drink a strong cup of this tea every day in the third trimester to tone the uterus.
But we’re going to sing the same tune with this one: check in with your doctor first.
We just don’t have the evidence yet to say for sure.
And then there are other options — simply going for a walk being one of them.
The best thing to do, as always, is to talk with your healthcare team ahead of time to see what might be best for you when the time comes.
Which brings us to our final chapter:
How to prepare for labor
Research shows that preparing for childbirth ahead of time can have very real impacts on your experience of childbirth — and even on whether medical interventions are needed as you go through it.
There are many things you can do to prepare.
You can do some of these, all of them, or none at all — it’s up to you.
The first thing to do is talk with your birth team often throughout pregnancy.
Go through your preferences (and what to do if things don’t happen according to plan).
To get started, take a look at our birth preferences template.
One thing to think about is ways to keep your strength up during labor.
While eating during labor used to be a no-no, many hospitals are actually finding that for many low-risk pregnancies, there’s no reason to go hungry (provided you stick to light nibbles only).
Playing music while you’re in labor can be a vital part of your experience.
And there’s research to suggest that music therapy can be highly beneficial when it comes to managing pain and anxiety while you’re in labor.
(We’ve put together a labor and delivery playlist for you. Enjoy!)
Childbirth classes can also be an excellent way to understand what you can expect from labor and delivery.
Often, your hospital or birth center will offer one or more childbirth classes.
Ask your doctor or midwife for advice on which one is best for you.
And, of course, we believe that community is everything.
Reading the birth stories of others can be very beneficial — as is talking to those who have been where you’re at.
Join us on Peanut.
We’re having the conversation.