If you're late in your last trimester of pregnancy, you're probably 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 not!) been waiting for nine long months, and finally, your baby could be here any day now!
Bear in mind that full term pregnancy is classed as the period between 37 to 42 weeks.
Only 3-5% of babies are born on their estimated due date, with around 40% of babies being born in the two weeks before their estimated due date and another 40% 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.
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, resulting in amniotic fluid trickling or gushing from your vagina. This is the first sign in 15-25% of labours, so it’s not as common as the movies would have you believe. It might be a smaller gush of waters or sometimes an enormous flood. Some women also notice a ‘popping’ sensation as their waters break.
Amniotic fluid can leak for days, but surprisingly, even after the waters have broken, the fluid will still be replenished. If you suspect your waters have broken, pop a pad on — do not use tampons — and call your midwife or doctor. You’ll be asked a few questions to help determine what has happened. Sometimes it can be a bladder leak, so 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:
- 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
Some women describe their waters as smelling a bit like ‘semen’ so if you do notice a smell, mention it to the midwife. Your waters should be clear or might have a pink tinge to them. If they are green, brown or any other colour you should be checked by your doctor or midwife.
Waters usually break during the night. Some women wake to their waters breaking and some go to the toilet and find their waters break as they get up. It can happen at other times too.
Signs Of Labour #2 – Contractions
Regular contractions are a good indicator that you are in 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 they are mild contractions, ignore them. If you feel there has been progress with early contractions (they are 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 far apart the contractions are, by counting the minutes between the start of one contraction and the start of the next.
Contractions roughly a minute long and approximately 3-5 minutes apart are a good sign that you're in labour.
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.
If you are in labour, the contractions will become stronger and last longer – this is the main indicator. The time between the contractions is also useful, however some women experience contractions anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes apart until they give birth. If you're trying to work out if your contractions are your body going into labour, remember, longer, stronger and closer together. If they aren't doing this, it could be early or pre-labour.
It’s 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
Signs Of Labour #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, and 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. Some women describe it as looking like a blob of semen, and it can be as big as an Australian 50 cent coin (make a circle with your thumb and index finger to get an idea of the approximate size).
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.
Some women will not notice their show at all, whereas others may lose their show when their waters break.
Signs Of Labour #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 a 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…'
Signs Of Labour #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 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!
Signs Of Labour #6 – Diarrhoea
In the days prior to birth, production of prostaglandin will stimulate your bowels to open more frequently. As labour approaches, you might notice diarrhoea – as the body naturally empties the bowels to make way for baby. Many women are afraid that they will open their bowels during labour. Usually the emptying of the bowel prior to going into labour prevents that. Sometimes there is passing of stools during labour. Some women don’t even notice as midwives quickly attend to it – they are used to it 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.
Signs Of 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 throughout pregnancy, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t – it doesn’t mean labour is any further away. Remember, to distinguish Braxton Hicks from labour contractions, note the points from ‘Signs Of Labour #2 – Contractions’, above. If they are labour contractions and not Braxton Hicks, they will become stronger, regular, closer together and will 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 it down, keep things normal and ignore any contractions if you can.
When Should I Go To 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 hospital, the sooner you’ll have your baby.
Sometimes going to hospital early can have exactly the opposite effect, and you end up with a longer or a medical labour. It’s a very common story. Mothers-to-be going into 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 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 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, because restricting movement makes it more difficult for baby to move through your pelvis and labour may last even longer as a result. Find out more about the big 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 begining.
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, 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 have to because you have run out of coping strategies or hot water at home
- You are having good 5-minute-apart 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 – they 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 arrived 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 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.”
“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 what 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 thought 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 up the tightenings, 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 I 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 midwife, Brenda Manning MIPP.