Early signs of labour

Pregnancy | | Louise Broadbridge


If you’re in the late stages of pregnancy, you might be wondering how you will know when you have gone into labour.

Forget what you might have seen on television and in films, most births don’t start with a huge gush of water, crippling pains and a dramatic rush to hospital. Many women find their labour starts much more slowly – but there are signs to look out for to show that things have started moving.

What are the early signs and symptoms of labour?

You may start to experience some contractions or feel like your bump is tightening. This can feel very similar to Braxton Hicks – the practice contractions many women experience in the later stages of pregnancy.

Braxton Hicks contractions tend to last less than 30 seconds and while they may feel uncomfortable, they are usually not painful. However, if it is labour, the contractions will last for longer before they die away – usually between 30 and 70 seconds – and they will continue at regular intervals until your baby is born.

The pain will usually feel like a wave, and will be mild at the beginning before growing in intensity and then ebbing away. If you have been experiencing contractions regularly for more than an hour, it is possible that this is the start of labour rather than Braxton Hicks. However, labour is unpredictable and things can tend to stop and start.

Not all women experience obvious contractions in the early stages of labour. You may feel like you have period pains, your back might ache and you may feel pressure in your pelvis.

You might feel like you need to go to the toilet urgently – this is usually because your baby’s head is pushing down on your bowel. When you do go to the toilet, you might notice some bloody mucus in your underwear. This is often called a ‘show’ and is the plug of mucus that had been blocking your cervix, which is coming away ready for your baby to be born.

For some women, the first sign they are in labour will be that their waters have broken. This can be a sudden gush of liquid or it may be a slow trickle of fluid.


What should I do during the early stages of labour?

The early stages of labour can take a long time and pass slowly. There is no rush to do anything at all if your baby is full-term (past 37 weeks of pregnancy) and you feel comfortable at home.

For some women, the beginning of labour can take many hours and even days. During this latent stage of labour, your cervix is starting to soften and thin, in preparation for your baby being born.

If your waters haven’t broken, you may want to take a bath to help you manage the pain. Try to make yourself as comfortable as you can and rest, as you will need your strength for the birth.

You may want to get in touch with your birth partner if they are not already with you, so they know your labour is starting and they can offer you help and support.

Try to keep upright and moving and walk around if you can. Sometimes early labour can stop and start, but keeping active can get baby moving again.

Make sure you are drinking plenty of fluids so you don’t become dehydrated and try to eat what you can – having some easy, healthy snacks on hand will help. You may want to try some relaxation and breathing exercises to help you manage the pain. Some women find a back-rub comforting.

You can take paracetamol to help with the pain, but take a note of how much you have taken and when.

When should I call my midwife?

Your midwife should have talked to you about what the plan is when you go into labour. You may have a number to call to speak to the maternity unit at the hospital or you may have been told to contact your community midwife.

If you are more than three weeks away from your due date, call your midwife if you experience any of the signs of early labour, as this could mean your baby will be premature.If your pregnancy has reached full term (37 weeks), you don’t have to tell your midwife the moment you think your labour might have started.

In the weeks before your labour starts have a think of all the nice things you could do to distract yourself. Yoga, movies, gentle walks, and baking cakes are all nice ways to pass the time. Being relaxed will promote the release of that all-important oxytocin, which is needed to fuel your contractions.

The decision to call your midwife or go into hospital is best based on how you are feeling. If you are able to carry on with similar activities to above then probably best to relax and stay at home. If, however, you feel you want additional support or pain relief, give your maternity unit a call. Counting contractions is only likely to make you anxious and there really isn’t any need to do so.

Once you have decided to call the hospital, spend 10 minutes before hand counting how many you are having. Then you will be able to say to the midwife the point in time they became more intense (usually when you are no longer able to do cake baking!) - and that in the last 10 minutes you have had X number of contractions.

You should also contact your midwife if you think your waters have broken, especially if the fluid is coloured or there is a smell. If you are losing blood or you have noticed a change in your baby’s movements, it is important to talk to your midwife and get medical advice as soon as you can.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice if there is anything you feel worried or unsure about. Your midwife will be happy to check everything is ok. She may ask you if your baby is moving normally and to describe the way you are feeling. You may also be asked to come in for an examination or to be monitored.