We hypothesized that the priming and activation of maternal leukocytes in peripheral blood is a key component of parturition, and that inappropriate preterm priming of leukocytes might initiate preterm labour and delivery. The purpose of this study was to characterize peripheral blood leukocyte activation during human term and preterm labour. We obtained blood samples from pregnant women at term and preterm, both in labour and not in labour. Leukocytes were characterized according to cell subtype and cell surface marker expression. Additionally, we quantified leukocyte cytokine mRNA production, migratory ability and reactive oxygen species production of neutrophils and macrophages. We found that both term and preterm labour were associated with an increase in monocyte and neutrophil proportion or number-neutrophil migratory ability and cell surface marker expression indicating activation. Messenger RNA expression of IL-1beta and IL-8, MCP-1 and TLR-2 was also increased. We conclude that leukocytes in peripheral blood are primed in preparation for activation during term and preterm labour, and that this may contribute to the pathophysiological events of parturition. These data may lead to novel therapies and diagnostic tools for the prevention and/or diagnosis of preterm birth.