Early Labour Signs
If you’re late in your last trimester of pregnancy, you are probably eagerly awaiting a sign that labour has begun or is imminent. So what might you notice in early labour? Be sure to read our list below if you’d like to know what the signs of labour are. Some women may have none of these things happen and should discuss a plan of action when you reach 42 weeks. A full term pregnancy is 38-42 weeks and remember, only 3-5% of babies are born on their due date!
Early Labour Sign #1 – Spontaneous Rupture of Membranes (SROM)
Commonly known as the ‘breaking of the waters’, this happens when the amniotic sac (which surrounds the baby) ruptures, resulting in amniotic fluid trickling or gushing from your vagina. This happens as the first sign of labour in around 15-25% of labours, so it’s not as common as the TV soap operas would have you believe. You may notice a smaller gush of waters or sometimes it may be an enormous flood. Some women also notice a ‘popping’ sensation as their waters break.
Amniotic fluid can leak for days and even after the waters have broken, the fluid will still be replenished. If you suspect you have broken your waters, pop a pad on (do not use tampons) and call your midwife or labour ward who will ask a few questions to help distinguish what has happened. Sometimes it may be a bladder leak – don’t feel embarrassed if this is the case, as it’s quite common in the latter stages of pregnancy.
Some indicators that your waters that have broken are:
- Having no control over the flow
- A panty liner is inadequate to absorb the fluid
- The pad is wet more than once, and
- It doesn’t smell like urine
Some women describe their waters smelling a bit like ‘semen’ so if you do notice a smell, mention this to the midwife. Your waters should be clear or may have a pink tinge to them. If they are green, brown or any other colour you should get checked out by your doctor or midwife.
Waters usually break during the night, some wake to their waters breaking and some wake to go to the toilet and find their water breaks as they get up. It can happen other times also.
Early Labour Sign #2 – Contractions
Regular contractions are a good indicator that you are in labour. Early labour contractions usually feel like period pain or you may experience a lower backache at around 20 to 30 minute intervals. Sometimes these pains may radiate from back to front, or vice versa. There is no need to start timing the contractions straight away – if they are mild contractions, ignore them. If you feel there has been progress with early contractions (e.g. getting stronger, longer and closer together), time 5 contractions and see how they are panning out, then time another 5 when you feel there has been further progress.
To time your contractions count how many seconds there are between the start and the end of the contraction. You can also time how long it is between contractions by counting how many minutes there are between the start of one contraction and the start of the next contraction.
Approximately 3-5 minutes apart and roughly a minute long are a good sign that you are in labour. Labour contractions can start off coming at irregular intervals, but usually become more regular – this is why ignoring early contractions is helpful, as it avoids unnecessary disappointment and anxiety when the contractions aren’t progressing as you hoped. If you are in labour, the contractions will become stronger and last longer.
This is the main indicator of labour contractions – time between the contractions is also good, however some women will have contractions that last anywhere between 5-10 minutes apart until the birth. So its the stronger, longer opening contractions you want!
It is possible to experience contractions without your cervix dilating. You may still be in pre-labour and not established labour if:
- Your contractions are irregular
- The contractions aren’t getting increasingly stronger
- A change in position, massage, walking, eating or drinking relieves or stops the contractions
- The contractions are short or may last several minutes
Labour contractions will:
- Not stop or slow down, regardless of frequency and your activity
- Be in a fairly predictable pattern (e.g. every eight minutes although some women will have regular contractions every 5-10 minutes throughout)
- Become increasingly closer together
- Last longer
- Become stronger (walking usually makes them stronger)
- Build up, have a peak, then reduce
Early Labour Sign #3 – Mucus Plug / ‘Bloody’ Show
As your cervix begins to dilate (open), the thick mucus plug which sealed off your cervix during pregnancy (to prevent infection reaching the baby) may come loose and partially or wholly discharge from your vagina. It may be watery or sticky and be jelly-like in appearance, and sometimes has a brown, pink or red tinge to it. Some describe it as looking like a blob of semen and it may be as big as a 50 cent coin or more. The show may occur over several days and sometimes you can lose your show up to two weeks before labour starts. Most women who do notice their show will go into labour over the following few days.
Some women will not notice their show at all; others may lose their show when their waters break. Take a look at our poll and discussion in our forums as to when women noticed their show and when labour started, here.
Early Labour Sign #4 – Involuntary Shivering
Even if you are not cold, you may experience shivering or trembling in early labour. The same thing can happen during or after birth, and can be frightening if you aren’t sure why your body is doing it. It’s simply your body’s way of relieving tension and often lasts only a few minutes. What you can do to help is by doing something relaxing, like a warm shower, massage, deep breathing etc. Holding your breath to the count of 5 several times consecutively can stop the shivers. Another little trick you can try is to count backwards in threes from 20. 20, 17, 14, 11…
Early Labour Sign #5 – Lightening
When your baby has dropped and settled deeper into your pelvis, you might notice that you can breathe a little easier than before. This happens because it relieves some pressure on your diaphragm. However, as a pay off, you may then feel more pressure on your bladder, which means more trips to the bathroom!
Sometimes others around you might be first to notice that baby has dropped as your tummy changes in appearance, which you might not have realised. Some women don’t experience ‘lightening’ at all and go into labour fine – if your baby doesn’t drop, it doesn’t mean you wont go into labour or baby wont fit. Some good contractions can help with that!
Early Labour Sign #6 – Diarrhoea
In the days prior to birth, production of prostaglandin will stimulate your bowels to open more frequently. As labour approaches, you may notice diarrhoea – the body is naturally emptying the bowels to make way for baby. A very common fear is that you will open your bowels in labour, however you may find this emptying of the bowel prior to going into labour prevents that. Sometimes there can be some passing of stools during labour. Some women don’t even notice as midwives quickly attend to this, however keep in that the midwives are used to this and it is very normal. Anxiety in labour can slow or stall contractions, so if it is of great concern to you, have a chat with your midwife.
Early Labour Sign #7 – Increased Braxton Hicks Contractions
These ‘practice’ contractions which you may have felt during pregnancy may occur more frequently and be more intense and painful. Some women may not feel any Braxton Hicks throughout pregnancy so don’t feel alarmed if you haven’t and this doesn’t mean labour is any further away. Remember, to distinguish Braxton Hicks from labour contractions, note the points from the contractions paragraph – if they are labour contractions and not Braxton Hicks, they need to be getting stronger, regular, closer together and do not stop!
What Should I Do In Early Labour?
Don’t forget to check out our article Early Labour Tips & Suggestions for some ideas on how to help early labour pass more quickly! The main thing is to play things down, keep the normality and ignore any contractions if you can.
When Should I Go To Hospital?
Often mothers can feel confused or unsure as to when they should be going into hospital once early labour begins. Sometimes they may feel extra pressure from over-excited family members or friends who can’t wait to meet baby. Even our own excitement can take over and perhaps we might think that the sooner we get to hospital, the sooner we’ll have our baby – but sometimes going to hospital can have the exact opposite effect and then you end up with a longer or medical labour! It;s an all too common story, mothers going into hospital in early labour only to find that their contractions completely stop or slow down! Being in a strange or different environment with no distractions can do this, even to women who have been having regular 5 minutely contractions.
Stopping normal activity and going into the hospital too early removes a great deal of useful distraction normally available to pass time while labour gets going. Once you arrive in hospital activities are more restricted than what they would be at home and you may even feel the need to remain in bed. There isn’t much room to walk around either which isn’t helpful because a restriction in movement makes it more difficult for baby to move through your pelvis and labour may last even longer by doing this.
Most hospitals will prefer to send you home if you are in early labour but some may offer you the opportunity to stay. Usually women will want to stay due to the effort of coming in and sometimes due to feelings of embarrassment and/or failure – it may feel so disappointing to be going home so soon without a babe in arms, especially if you have already told family and friends. As an alternative to being sent home, you may be more inclined to accept medical inductions or augmentations, which can result in a more painful labour and add risk to what could have be a normal birth. To read more about inductions, check out our article here.
If you have broken your waters, when you need to go in can vary greatly according to hospital policy. Some will ask you to come in straight away and others will tell you to wait until contractions are well established (they will likely also ask you to call or come in no longer than 24 hours later). Some will want to artificially stimulate your labour straight away, others will be happy to wait for up to 96 hours, possibly with antibiotics in case of infection. Either way, most hospitals like to be called when your waters have broken and you need to find out prior to labour what their protocols are.
Go To Hospital Immediately If:
- You are bleeding
- Your waters have broken and the fluid is green, brown, yellow or anything other than clear or pink
- Baby isn’t moving
- You feel something is wrong
- You can’t stop vomiting
- You have unbearable pain
- You want to push
Don’t Go To Hospital Until / Unless:
- You have spoken to a midwife first
- Your waters break
- It’s your first baby and you are feeling slight bowel pressure
- It’s your second baby you are wondering why you are doing this again
- You have to because you have run out of coping strategies or hot water at home
- You are having good 5-minutely contractions
- You’ll hit peak hour traffic on the freeway if you wait
What Was Early Labour Like For You?
BellyBelly Forum Members recall what early labour was like for them:
“It was my first pregnancy and I started getting very mild contractions a little less than a week before my due date. I had a good feeling it was labour, because I’d had no braxton hicks or any niggles prior to then. I took a shower and the contractions started coming closer together and were more regular. I went to bed after calling the hospital, who suggested staying home while I was comfortable.
In the middle of the night, I woke with every contraction and had to dash to the toilet – I had the biggest urge to pee and empty my bowels with each contraction, it was so strange! It would only be very small amounts but it was such an uncontrolled urge to go! I was suddenly very convinced this was it. I called the hospital again since I was moaning throughout each one and they really started to hurt. Again, they suggested I stay home especially since I hadn’t had a show. I told the midwife, ‘But they really hurt!’ and she sarcastically replied, ‘Well it hurts when you have a baby.’ I felt talked down to and began to feel like an idiot. She told me to have a panadeine forte and go to sleep.
I really believe that the anxiety I felt after speaking to the midwife resulted in my labour slowing down by morning. Luckily I had a prenatal appointment that day – I was still contracting regularly but it was milder than the night before. It was discovered that I was indeed in labour, 5cms dilated, so I was sent to hospital. As soon as I got to hospital my labour completely stopped so I had to be put on the drip (augmentation) that night which was awful, the pain was incredible – much worse than my second, natural birth. Despite what happened, I would still never go in too early, as there is no way I ever want to be treated like I was by the midwife, it was very demeaning."
“My waters broke on the morning of December 1st 2005 and I had no pain whatsoever. I went through the day willing contractions to come on but none did! Emotionally I had decided that today was the day and I wanted bubs here. I even said to my dad the baby would be here that day, I was so sure of it. I spent the day eating pineapple, nipple stimulation (which worked I think) and finally at 7pm I had the worst contraction I’d ever had. We popped the TENS machine on and went to the hospital and Coco was born exactly an hour and 54 minutes later. It was fabulous, fast and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“With my first labour, it started off as a show 2 days before I was due. We went into hospital that afternoon to get checked out and found that I was 2cms dilated and I could either go home or stay. Even though I wasn’t having any contractions yet I chose to stay and my husband went home. I found the time by myself really good as I knew it would be the last moment of time I had before I was someone’s mum. I just relished my time alone and surprisingly I was very relaxed (mind you contractions hadn’t started yet). I went over my thoughts about the birth and contractions would be like when they started and things like that. I was excited knowing that I would finally be meeting my baby!
When contractions did start, the midwife called my husband and he came in about 2 hours later (we live 1 hour away from the hospital). I don’t think I would have done anything differently actually, I had a really easy time of it in a way, contractions started off slowly and gradually built up getting closer, it was only after my waters broke that I suppose I panicked a bit and didn’t think I could do it, that I wasn’t strong enough, but I got through that with some hugs and lots of positive words from my husband.
In hindsight, there were a lot of symptoms I had in the days leading up to it, but just didn’t realise it. Like four days before my baby arrived, we moved house and I just felt great and did lots of things (this was me nesting I suppose). Also my vagina was showing signs it was getting ready too. Now to explain this, DH has had a lot of experience pulling calves and lambs and he said to me the night before I had my show that by looking at me, he said I’d be holding my baby in 2 days, because my vagina was all puffy and full looking, just like the heifers and ewes get right before they go into labour. Now I dismissed this, but he was right on the money."
“I had pre-labour for about a week before active labour began. It was pretty exhausting, having these constant niggles that didn’t go away but never really reached a level, where I thought that it was time to go. I went in for check ups and the CTG was picking the tightenings up, which were irregular. On the day before William was born, I found that I couldn’t keep still and my midwife said she knew I’d be back later, so wouldn’t send my notes back down to medical records.
Other little things had changed over that week, I became really slow and methodical with all that I did. What struck me as the biggest change was that I went from being frustrated and wanting the baby out to feeling really peaceful and accepting of whatever was going to happen. I went into the hospital when I couldn’t sleep through the tightenings anymore and after an unusually heavy show (it was a VBAC). I don’t think I would have done anything any differently because I had a really great support group waiting for me at the hospital. As it turned out, I laboured all day with very little progress and then within half an hour went from 2cm to fully dilated, so wasn’t in what was considered active labour even though I was contracting 2 minutely for 45 seconds for most of the day."
“For my second pregnancy, the contractions started in exactly the same fashion as the first, mild period like pains after no niggles throughout my pregnancy, so I was pretty sure I was in early labour. I was excited and called my family, my sister came over that night and we timed some contractions. I was coping fine with them, they were very mild and I was silly and stayed up too late! My sister’s excitement led me to go into hospital for a check, which I probably wouldn’t have done if she wasn’t there, but I felt that it was letting her down or boring for her if I just kept at home and did nothing! Of course my contractions stopped in hospital, so by morning I was sent home with my cervix only slightly open. I didn’t want an induction so I was happy to go home.
As soon as I arrived home, contractions started again! The next day, I was back into the hospital as I felt they had stepped up. Again the contractions stopped when I arrived, so I really felt stupid and so frustrated, especially since I was a second time mum. I went home with no cervix check and decided to try some natural induction methods like a nice massage after a bath (where I couldn’t get comfortable due to the contractions) and sex. It worked, my show came away in a big way and I was quite uncomfortable. Overnight, I couldn’t sleep through the contractions and sat in the lounge watching infomercials which was so boring but I just couldn’t sleep through the pain. I wanted to keep active so I changed positions and kept upright as much as I could. I was contracting at 5-10 minute intervals and then at around 9am the next morning I’d had enough, I wanted out! I called my sister who came in with us, I was examined to be 9cms dilated, so I was pushing within minutes and my baby was born within a few further minutes!"
This article includes contributions from BellyBelly’s Midwife, Brenda Manning MIPP.
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