Early labor

by Kaiser Permanente |
Pregnant woman with her eyes closed touching her belly and lower back, suffering from backache.

You may think you need to get to the hospital when you begin having contractions, but that usually isn’t the case. You are probably in a stage that is known as early labor. During this stage, mild to moderate contractions can last for hours, days or possibly, weeks.

It is common to go to the hospital during early labor and be sent home until you have more regular contractions, your water breaks, and your cervix becomes dilated.

Don’t be discouraged if you are sent home. Every labor is different, and sometimes it is hard to know exactly where you are in the process.

Experiencing early labor at home has many advantages. You can move about freely, enjoy a comfortable environment, and be surrounded by supportive friends and family members.

The stages of labor

Labor has four phases:

  • Early labor: Contractions are irregular and mild to uncomfortable.
  • Active labor: Contractions become more regular and consistently painful.
  • Second stage: When you push and give birth to the baby.
  • Third stage: When you deliver the placenta.

Past that is the recovery stage, when your body starts to heal from childbirth.

What is early labor?

During early labor, your body is beginning the process of giving birth to your baby. Your contractions are becoming stronger and more regular. You might experience cramping, indigestion, loose stools, bloody show, or backaches.


You know you’re in early labor when you experience mild to moderate contractions that last for 30 to 45 seconds. They are becoming increasingly painful and don’t go away when you walk around. Around this time, your cervix will begin to thin and open. It will widen to about 4-6 centimeters and shorten in length.

Your contractions often won’t come regularly during early labor. They may even stop and start several times. All this is completely normal.


Managing discomfort

Early labor can be a long, uncomfortable phase. You can walk around, watch TV, listen to music, or take a warm shower or bath to help through this time. Try different positions like squatting, leaning forward, or getting on your hands and knees.

Other things you can try:

  • Keep busy with comforting or distracting activities like playing games.
  • Keep calm with visualization exercises.
  • Eat light meals and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Ask your labor partner for a back massage.
  • Take a nap if you are tired.

Timing contractions

Timing contractions can give you a good sense of where you are in the labor process. It is not necessary to time contractions until they are too painful to talk through.

Time your contractions with a watch or with an app designed for this purpose. Keep track of how much time passes from the beginning of one until the beginning of the next.

If this is your first baby, you are moving into active labor when contractions last at least 45 to 60 seconds and occur every 3 to 5 minutes. The contractions should also be too painful to walk or talk through. If you’ve already had a baby, contractions may come every 5 to 7 minutes.

It is common to go to the hospital during early labor and be sent home until you progress to more regular labor contractions or until your water breaks and when your cervix is more dilated. If you have been having contractions for a while and are tired, you may be offered medication to help you sleep with you return home. This is called therapeutic rest. Don’t be discouraged if this happens, every labor is different and sometimes it is hard to know exactly where you are. A cervical exam is the best way to know what stage you are in and the ideal time to admitted is when you are 4-6 cm dilated.

There are certain medical conditions in pregnancy where your clinician may recommend that come into the hospital early. You also should always call with the following:

  • You have vaginal bleeding.
  • You have belly pain.
  • You have a fever.
  • You have symptoms of preeclampsia, such as:
    • Sudden swelling of your face, hands, or feet.
    • New vision problems (such as dimness, blurring, or seeing spots).
    • A severe headache.
  • You have a sudden release of fluid from your vagina. (You think your water broke.)
  • You think that you may be in labor. This means that you've had at least 6 contractions in an hour.
  • You notice that your baby has stopped moving or is moving much less than normal.
  • You have symptoms of a urinary tract infection. These may include:
    • Pain or burning when you urinate.
    • A frequent need to urinate without being able to pass much urine.
    • Pain in the flank, which is just below the rib cage and above the waist on either side of the back.
    • Blood in your urine.

When to call 911

You or someone else should call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if you:

  • Have a seizure.
  • Pass out (lose consciousness).
  • Have severe chest pain.
  • Are struggling to breathe.
  • Have a large amount of vaginal bleeding.
  • Have sudden, severe pain in your belly.
  • See or feel the umbilical cord.
  • Think you are about to deliver your baby and can't make it safely to the hospital.

This article has been created by a national group of Kaiser Permanente ob-gyns, certified nurse-midwives, pediatricians, lactation consultants and other specialists who came together to provide you with the best pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and newborn information.

Some of the content is used and adapted with permission of The Permanente Medical Group.