Are you eagerly awaiting any signs of labour, so you know labour has begun or is imminent?
It’s such an exciting time.
You’ve been patiently (or perhaps impatiently!) waiting for nine long months. Finally, your baby could be here any day now!
Bear in mind that full-term pregnancy is the period between 37 to 42 weeks.
Only 3-5% of babies are born on their estimated due date.
Around 40% of babies are born in the two weeks before their estimated due date, and another 40% are born in the two weeks after.
Some women may experience no signs of labour and should discuss a plan of action if they reach 42 weeks of pregnancy.
But let’s get right into it – what signs of labour might you notice?
Signs of labour
#1 – Spontaneous rupture of membranes (SROM)
Commonly known as the ‘breaking of the waters’, this happens when the amniotic sac (the fluid-filled sac which surrounds the baby) ruptures.
The fluid may come out as a trickle, a small gush of water, or perhaps an enormous flood.
Some women also notice a ‘popping’ sensation as their waters break.
This is the first sign of labour for around 15-25% of women – it’s not as common as the movies would have you believe!
If you suspect your waters have broken, pop a pad on – do not use tampons – and call your midwife or doctor.
Some indicators that your waters that have broken are:
- You have no control over the flow
- A panty liner is inadequate to absorb the fluid
- The pad is wet more than once
- It doesn’t smell like urine
Read more about What To Do When Your Waters Break.
#2 – Contractions
Regular contractions are a good indicator of labour.
Early labour contractions usually feel like period pain, or you might experience a lower backache at 20 to 30-minute intervals.
Sometimes these pains radiate from back to front, or vice versa.
There’s no need to start timing the contractions straight away – if your contractions are mild, try to ignore them.
Labour contractions tend to come at irregular intervals at first, but usually become more regular – this is why it helps to ignore early contractions.
It avoids unnecessary disappointment and anxiety when the contractions aren’t progressing as you hoped.
It is possible to experience contractions without your cervix dilating.
You could still be in pre-labour, rather than established labour if:
- Your contractions are irregular
- The contractions aren’t 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 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
Find out more in our article What Do Contractions Feel Like?
#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) might come loose.
This can then partially or wholly discharge from your vagina.
The mucus plug might be watery or sticky and jelly-like in appearance. Sometimes it has a brown, pink or red tinge to it.
The show might occur over several days and can sometimes appear up to two weeks before labour starts.
Most women who notice their show will go into labour over the following few days.
Find out more in our article, The Mucus Plug During Pregnancy.
#4 – Involuntary shivering
Even if you are not cold, you might 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 it’s happening.
It’s simply your body’s way of relieving tension and usually lasts only a few minutes.
You can help by doing something relaxing, like deep breathing, or having a warm shower or massage.
Holding your breath to the count of 5 several times consecutively can also stop the shivers.
Another little trick to try is to count backwards in threes from 20: ’20, 17, 14, 11…’
#5 – Lightening
When your baby has dropped and settled deeper into your pelvis, you might notice that you can breathe more easily than before.
This is because the pressure on your diaphragm has been relieved. As pay-back, though, you might feel more pressure on your bladder, which means more trips to the bathroom!
Others around you might be first to notice that baby has dropped. You might not even realise that your tummy has changed in appearance.
Some women don’t experience ‘lightening’ at all and that’s fine.
If your baby doesn’t drop, it doesn’t mean you won’t go into labour or baby won’t fit. Some good contractions will help with that!
#6 – Diarrhoea
In the days prior to birth, the hormone prostaglandin will stimulate your bowels to open more frequently.
As labour approaches, you might notice diarrhoea, as your body empties your bowels to make way for baby.
Some women will pass stools during labour. This often goes unnoticed, as midwives quickly attend to it.
Check out our article if you’re anxious about pooping during labour.
#7 – Increased Braxton Hicks contractions
These ‘practice’ contractions which you might have felt during pregnancy can occur more frequently, and be more intense and painful.
Some women don’t feel any Braxton Hicks contractions throughout pregnancy, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t.
It doesn’t mean labour is any further away.
To distinguish Braxton Hicks from labour contractions, note the points from ‘#2 – Contractions’, above.
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 it down, keep things normal and ignore any contractions if you can.
When should I go to the hospital?
You might feel unsure about when to go into hospital once early labour begins.
There might be pressure from overexcited family members or friends who can’t wait to meet your baby.
Even your own excitement can take over, and you might think the sooner you get to the hospital, the sooner you’ll have your baby.
Sometimes going to the hospital early can have exactly the opposite effect, and you end up with a longer or medical labour.
It’s a very common story. Mothers-to-be going into a hospital during early labour, only to find their contractions have slowed down or completely stopped.
Being in a strange or different environment with so many interruptions can do this, even for women who have been having regular contractions every five minutes.
The anxiety and adrenaline can counter the efforts of the labour hormone, oxytocin.
The flight or fight response raises your adrenaline level, slowing things down until you are in a ‘safe place’.
Stopping normal activity and going into the hospital too early removes a great deal of useful distractions that can help pass time while labour gets going.
Once you arrive at the hospital
Once you arrive in hospital, your activities are restricted compared to being at home.
You might even feel the need to stay in the hospital bed, which can slow things down and make contractions more painful.
There isn’t much room to walk around either, which isn’t helpful.
Restricting movement makes it more difficult for the baby to move through your pelvis, and labour may last even longer as a result.
Find out more about the benefits of birthing upright.
Most hospitals will prefer to send you home if you are in early labour, but some might offer you the opportunity to stay.
Usually, women want to stay because of the effort of coming in, and sometimes due to feeling embarrassed leaving without a baby.
It can also be disappointing to go home without a babe in arms, especially if you’ve already told family and friends.
At this point, you might feel more inclined to accept a medical induction or augmentation, which can result in a more painful labour and add risk to what could have been a normal birth.
To read more about the risk of inductions, see our article here.
If your waters have broken, when you’re expected to go into hospital varies greatly according to hospital policy.
Some facilities will ask you to come in straight away. Others will tell you to wait until contractions are well established, and quite likely you’ll be asked to call or come in no longer than 24 hours later.
Some will want to stimulate your labour artificially – either straight away, or after a wait of up to 96 hours, possibly with antibiotics in case of infection.
In most cases, hospitals like you to call when your waters have broken.
But you should find out what their protocols are prior to labour beginning.
Go to the hospital immediately if you:
- Are bleeding
- Have broken your waters and the fluid is green, brown, yellow or anything other than clear or pink
- Notice your baby isn’t moving
- Feel something is wrong
- Can’t stop vomiting
- Have unbearable pain
- Want to push
Don’t go to the hospital until, or 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 and you are wondering why you are doing this again
- You’ve run out of coping strategies or hot water at home and need more help
- You are having good 5-minute-apart contractions
- Peak traffic will be a problem if you wait
What early signs of labour might I expect?
BellyBelly fans recall what the first signs of labour were for them.
Early labour with no previous signs
“Almost a week before my estimated due date, I experienced my very first signs of labour. It felt like period pain and gradually got stronger. I was convinced it was actual labour because I felt no Braxton Hicks or niggles prior to then. After taking a shower, the sensations started coming closer together. I went to bed after calling the hospital – they suggested staying home longer while I was comfortable. In the middle of the night, I woke with every contraction and dashed 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 small amounts, but it was such an uncontrollable urge to go. The next day, my labour ended up stalling in hospital at 5 centimetres dilated. I had the drip (synthetic hormones) which I didn’t like one bit.”
A fast and fabulous labour
“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 decided that today was the day, and I wanted baby here. I even told my dad the baby would be here that day, I was so sure of it! I spent the day eating pineapple, and doing 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. Coco was born exactly an hour and 54 minutes later. It was fabulous, fast and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Slow and steady labour
“My first labour started off as a show, two days before I was due. We went into hospital to get checked out. I was 2 centimetres dilated and could either go home or stay. Even though I wasn’t having any contractions yet, I chose to stay and my husband went home. The time by myself was really good. I just relished my time alone and surprisingly I was very relaxed (mind you, contractions hadn’t started yet). It gave me time to go over my thoughts about the birth. When contractions did start, they started off slowly and gradually built up, getting closer. It was only after my waters broke that I suppose I panicked a bit. I didn’t think I could do it and that I wasn’t strong enough. But I got through that moment with some hugs and lots of positive words from my husband.”
A long pre-labour and a VBAC
“I had pre-labour for about a week before active labour began. It was pretty exhausting, having constant niggles that didn’t go away, but never really reached a level where I thought it was time to go. I went in for check-ups, and the electronic monitoring was picking up the tightenings, which were irregular. On the day before William was born, I found that I couldn’t keep still. My midwife said she knew I’d be back later! I went into the hospital when I couldn’t sleep through the tightenings anymore. I also had an unusually heavy show (I was having a VBAC). As it turned out, I laboured all day with very little progress. Then within half an hour, I went from 2cm to fully dilated, so I wasn’t in what was considered ‘active labour’, even though I was contracting 2 minutely for 45 seconds for most of the day.”
This article includes contributions from midwife, Brenda Manning MIPP.