Signs of Labor: What to Expect

Your signs of labor and your first stage of labor will be demystified. Get essential information to recognize that labour is on its way. Ready to embark in this journey which we do not yet know the whole route?

“Just as a woman’s heart knows how and when to pump, her lungs to inhale, and her hand to pull back from fire, so she knows when and how to give birth.” -Virginia Di Orio

As a doula and a prenatal yoga teacher, I like to remind pregnant women that every human being is unique. Every pregnancy is unique too! Probably, if we share our labor experiences, every story will be different.

Labor symptoms can occur several weeks before your pregnancy due date.Your obstetrician or your midwife might say that these signs are not effective yet because they don’t have any effect on your cervix. I prefer to call this stage the invisible labor preparation…


Find out more on our step by step guide Pregnancy Yoga Resource. Click here to download it.

Early Signs of Labor

Pregnancy labor is usually triggered when all the elements are combined. Your cocktail of hormones is present in perfect proportion, your cervix is ripe…and your baby is ready!

Here is a list of possible pre-labor signs that you might experience (please note that you might not experience all of these signs of labor):

  • Loss of MUCUS PLUG. It’s the passage of slippery pink or blood tinged mucus from your vagina that we call the bloody show. It is a sign that your cervix changed its position. Which is good!
  • ALLEVIATION and lightening sensations due to the descent of your baby deeper into your pelvis. Your breathing might be easier.
  • Leaking or trickle of fluid from your vagina caused by a SMALL RUPTURE OF MEMBRANES. Your water breaks! The amniotic fluid, the protective liquid that surrounds your baby, is really like water: clear and odorless. You may lose a few drops when you force, cough or sneeze.If you do not have contractions within 24 hours after your water breaks, the risk of infection can increases if you are not vigilant. Avoid sexual intercourse (no fingers in your vagina) and be very careful when you go to the toilet (you wipe from front to back, as always!). If the liquid is colored green or if you can’t feel your baby move, go to the hospital right away. I think it is always wise to call your obstetrician or your midwife as soon as the amniotic sac breaks.
  • “Non progressing” contractions or BRAXTON-HICKS CONTRACTIONS.
  • THE THINNING OF YOUR CERVIX is associated with the false labor contractions (not so false after all!). This effacement can begin several weeks before childbirth. Your degree of effacement is measured in percentages (from 0 to 100%).

Find out more on our step by step guide Pregnancy Yoga Resource. Click here to download it.

Positive Signs of Labor

  • CERVICAL DILATION is a sign that your cervix had began to open in preparation for childbirth. Your obstetrician or your midwife can mesured the width of the opening with their fingers. We calculate the cervix dilation in centimeters, from 0 to 10 cm (which means, in general, that you are completely dilated and ready to push).

According to Jean Elaine Sutton (Let Birth Be Born Again: Rediscovering and Reclaiming our Midwifery Heritage, 2001), the cervix doesn’t dilate as depicted in obstetric dilatation models as the perfect circle that appears on the image above. The cervix tend to open from the back to the front like an ellipse.

  • A gush of amniotic fluid from your vagina caused by a LARGE RUPTURE OF MEMBRANES. Somewhere between 50 to 70% of all women who break their waters early will go into labor within 48 hours. 80 to 90% of those near term will begin labor within 24 hours.

According to the University Of Minnesota, research does not indicate an increased infection risk after 24 hours. Avoiding vaginal exams in the absence of active labor seems to be the best way to avoid infection. Insert NOTHING in your vagina. No finger, tampon, penis or tongue! Avoid sit-down baths or hot tubs. Showers only until labor is well underway. Still, I suggest that you contact your health care provider as soon as your water breaks.

  • Progressing and REGULAR UTERINE CONTRACTIONS are the most positive signs of labor. You are in your active stage of labor. A hot bath or a change of position won’t stop the contraction pattern that is taking place. They will become stronger and longer with time. Labor contractions are usually felt in the abdomen, the back or both. For sure they will become very strong and painful.

I heartily recommend that you read this wonderful resource from Penny Simkin that I use as a doula:Comfort in Labor: How You Can Help Yourself to a Normal Satisfying Childbirth. If you want to deepen your reading, here is a must from the same author. You can click on the link below to have an overview of her books.


The First Stage of Labor

In the obstetrics’ literature, labor is usually divided in three different stages; labor, pushing (and birth) and the delivery of the placenta. The first stage of labor consist of three phases as well.

The first phase of labor is also called the EARLY LABOR. It can be measured with your cervical dilation, in general, from 0 to 3 centimeters. Your contractions may last 30-60 seconds, every 5-20 minutes.

The second phase of labor is also called the ACTIVE LABOR. It can be measured with your cervical dilation, in general, from 3 to 7 centimeters. Your contractions may last 45-60 seconds, every 2-5 minutes. According to Evidence Based Birth, 6 cm should be now considered the start of active labor and caregivers should keep in mind that normal early labor (before 6 cm) sometimes includes a period in wich there is NO change in dilation for hours.

The last and third phase of labor is also called the TRANSITION PHASE. It can be measured with your cervical dilation, in general, from 7 to 10 centimeters. Your contractions may last 60-90 seconds, every 1-2 minutes. Your contractions are one after another and you may begin to feel them differently. They will become expulsive uterine contractions. You might feel nauseous, have hot flashes and/or cold feet. Burping, sweating and shaking will all be normal physical reactions. You will meet your baby soon!

Because every womans’ labor is unique, the duration and frequency of your contractions can vary.

When you notice early signs of labor, be active but don’t exhaust yourself by walking kilometers! Walking, climbing stairs and lunging helps your baby to descend. It will help your baby to rotate into the optimum position for birth. But first, you need to rest for the next phase! Walking is more effective in active labor and transition phase when baby has descended enough to put pressure on your cervix. It will help your cervix to open.

By the end of the transition phase, your cervix will be 100% effaced, completely dilated. You will be ready to enter in the second stage of labor: pushing!

What will be the length of your first stage of labor you might ask yourself?

In 2010, researchers (Neal et al. 2010) combined the results of studies from 1990 to 2008 that reported the average length of labor among 7,009 first-time mothers who went into labor on their own (not induced). Researchers found that the average length of active labor was 6 hours with women dilating on average 1,2 cm per hour during the active stage (6 cm). Since it’s an AVERAGE, it’s good to know that half of women dilated slower than 1,2 cm per hour, and half dilated faster than this!

I believe that if you remain ACTIVE when you notice any positive signs of labor and in UPRIGHT POSITIONS, your labor will be faster and easier. Let go of the time duration and why not remove the clock from your place of birth? This is often a stressor! Instead, focus on your signs of labor and on your baby that you will hold in your arms very soon!

Find out more on our step by step guide Pregnancy Yoga Resource. Click here to download it.