How Do You Know You’re In Labor?

The final weeks of pregnancy feel like they each have 18 days in them. They last forever. Your mind has a hard time thinking about anything but the fact that you won’t be pregnant soon, and you are curious if THIS moment, oh wait! This moment will be the last one where you feel this way as a PREGNANT PERSON!

There is so much anticipation! You can’t help it. Experts tell you to try to find distractions and to rest as much as possible. (It’s true! Ask me how I know!) But on the other side of those distractions are the same worries and anxious feelings.

“When is labor going to start, and how will I know if it’s labor?!”

Most people don’t know they are in labor – they think they are in labor. Especially if they have never been in labor before, having a contraction can feel to some like a massive cramp that catches their breath, to a slightly uncomfortable poke in the ribs. Every labor is different.

From a professional standpoint, labor is contractions that get longer, stronger, and closer together. If that isn’t happening, then you most likely aren’t in labor.

But just like everything that has to do with children, there are always exceptions!

  • There is prodromal labor.
  • There is Precipitous labor.
  • There is “back labor.”
  • There is “false labor.”
  • There is early labor, active labor, and transitional labor.

So when you ask how do you know if you are in labor – the answer is complicated!


Prodromal labor is labor that feels real in every way. The contractions are consistent, they require your attention, and over time they zap you of energy and motivation. But prodromal labor is labor that goes on for an extended period with no cervical change. Often, this type of labor also plateaus. This labor often feels discouraging and requires a robust support team to help you work through it.


Precipitous labor is labor 3 hours or less from start to finish – including pushing! This labor is intense. All of the physical changes that happen for others over 12 or 24 hours happen quickly, and those who have experienced claim that it was not something they felt any control over. Instead, it feels like their birth happened to them.


“Back Labor” is a term laypeople use to describe labor pains that occur mostly in the lower back or upper tailbone area. This feeling may be evidence of a baby’s position being slightly unfavorable. Position changes can help, as can direct counter pressure to the spot of pain. Back labor, if at the start of labor, may not be identified as labor right away, as many pregnant people complain of back pain in their third trimester.


“False Labor” are contracts that come and go, with no sort of pattern or consistency. It can also be where contractions ARE consistent, but that they do not persist past a few hours. It is not uncommon for people to have contractions during the night but then have no contractions throughout the day, only to have contractions again the next night! We want you to know that in no way are these contractions false! But they are part of early labor, and they sound like they are, it’s not time to get too excited. It’s early yet.


Early labor is the contractions that are the beginning of your labor. They tend to be up to 30 seconds in length, where you can breathe and talk regularly through them, and they cause little to no discomfort. They can have spread out the frequency from 10-25 minutes apart, or no consistent pattern. As you get closer to active labor, your contractions will still not take your breath away. They can happen every 5-10 minutes and produce cervical change from 0-5 cm dilation. It is easiest to identify early labor AFTER you have delivered when you start to see your actions and feelings in a new light!


Active labor is the phase where your body is working through the cervical change from 6-8 centimeters. Your contractions will be noticeable and more intense. They will come every 3-5 minutes or so, and last about 45-60 seconds. You will focus more intently. Distractions no longer being welcome, jokes no longer seem funny, and you may find rhythmic movements and sounds to be helpful. You may want to find a low lit space and calming energy to be near you. If you enjoy hydrotherapy, this is the time to use the shower or bath to help you release tension with each contraction, and breathe deeply through each contraction.


Transitional labor is the hardest, and typically the fastest phase of labor. Your contractions will come every 2-3 minutes and last 60-90 seconds. Transitional labor is the last centimeters of cervix getting out of the way for your baby. The intensity is again heightened as you have less time to rest between contractions. This is a point of enormous vulnerability for the laboring person and can be when they feel weak and discouraged from continuing. Having support through each contraction with positive reinforcement, affirmations, and help with position changes or pain relief is needed now more than ever.

Even with these descriptions of labor, there is still a wide window where one phase can blend with another. As you get closer to the end of your pregnancy, we encourage you to let go of expectations of what should happen and pay closer attention to what is happening. If what is happening is popcorn and a movie, we want you to enjoy it. Because when you are in labor to the point of meeting your baby, there is no way you won’t know it’s happening.