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Giving birth - early signs of labour

7-minute read

Key facts

  • You cannot know when your labour will start because every labour is different.
  • Early signs of labour are typically felt between 37 and 42 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Early signs of labour include cramps, a ‘show’ or your waters breaking.
  • A 'show’ is bloodstained vaginal discharge.
  • Braxton Hicks contractions are not true labour contractions.

What are the early signs of labour?

The early signs of labour are the physical changes in your hormones and body as it gets ready for the birth. These might include:

  • cramps that feel like period pain
  • low backache
  • diarrhoea
  • change in vaginal discharge
  • bloodstained discharge (‘A show’)
  • waters breaking

You cannot know exactly when your labour will start, since it varies for each pregnancy. Recognising early signs as different from your normal pregnancy discomforts can help you identify when labour is about to begin. You may also notice:

  • Your baby drops deeper into your pelvis, increasing pressure on your bladder and the need to urinate more often.
  • You have a sudden burst of energy and the urge to prepare for the baby, known as “nesting”.

What is 'a show'?

'A show' is bloodstained or pink-coloured discharge that you might find on your underwear close to labour starting. It is a thick plug of mucus that seals the cervix to protect your baby from infection during your pregnancy.

A ‘show’ means your cervix is beginning to open. It can happen days or even weeks before your contractions start. It can look like jelly, be watery or sticky and come away in one piece or in several pieces over a few days. Not everyone has or notices a ‘show’.

When will I notice early signs of labour?

Early signs of labour usually begin between 37 and 42 weeks of pregnancy. You may notice your baby’s head engaging (‘dropping’) in the pelvis at about 36 weeks, especially if this is your first baby.

Labour varies and can start differently for different people. The first stage of labour, from when your cervix starts to soften until your baby is born, can last for hours or days. You might not feel anything at first, and experience more discomfort as the contractions become strong and regular.

How do I know I am in labour?

You are in labour when your contractions become regular, longer and stronger. These contractions start to thin (efface) and open (dilate) the cervix. These are different to Braxton Hicks contractions, which help your body prepare for labour, but do not open the cervix.

If this is your first labour, the first stage of labour usually lasts between 8 to 12 hours. It is best to stay home during early labour, where you are free to move around and do what feels right for you.

Head to hospital or where you plan to give birth when contractions are 5 minutes apart or as advised by your midwife or doctor. You should time your contractions from the start of one contraction to the start of the next.

What are the signs that something is wrong?

Call triple zero (000) straight away and ask for an ambulance in any of the following situations:

  • if your labour is progressing quickly and you think you may not make it to hospital in time for your baby’s birth
  • if you have heavy bleeding from your vagina
  • if you have a severe headache or blurred vision (these can be signs of pre-eclampsia)

There are signs that are concerning or can show that you baby might be in distress. Call your midwife, doctor or hospital straight away if:

  • your waters break, and the fluid is green or brown, indicating that your baby has passed meconium (poo) and may be distressed
  • you experience bleeding from your vagina
  • you experience contractions or signs of labour before 37 weeks, as you may be at risk of premature labour
  • you are concerned about your baby’s movements
  • you have a feeling of strong pressure in your vagina or bottom or an urge to push

Resources and support

  • Speak to your doctor or midwife during a prenatal visit about what you should do when you start to feel early signs of labour. If you think you are in labour and have any questions or concerns, call your midwife or doctor.
  • The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists provides an easy-to-read fact sheet on labour and birth.
  • Health NSW publishes a labour and birth booklet outlining the various stages, what to expect at each stage of the birthing process and as well as how you can be supported.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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