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Giving birth – early signs of labour

4-minute read

You cannot predict when your labour will start since every labour is different. However, taking note of these subtle early signs of labour will give you some idea of when things are about to begin.

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.

During the last month of your pregnancy, you might feel quite breathless, or notice that the baby has dropped deeper into your pelvis. This will put pressure on your bladder, meaning you need to go to the toilet more often. Many women are tired in the weeks before labour, but others get a sudden burst of energy. This nesting instinct is an urge to get everything ready before the baby is born.

In the days before labour starts, you might notice some subtle signs. It can be hard to tell them apart from your normal pregnancy discomforts. You might notice a change in the discharge from your vagina or a few cramps in your abdomen. You may have a low, dull ache in your back that can come and go. You may also feel pressure in your vagina or back passage.

As the big day gets nearer, you may experience more definite early signs of labour. These might include:

  • cramps that feel like period pain
  • backache
  • diarrhoea

Many women notice a lot of Braxton Hicks contractions towards the end of their pregnancy. These are different from true labour contractions because they are irregular, don’t get stronger or more painful, and usually stop if you change position or walk around.

Another early labour sign is when your waters break. This is when the membranes holding the amniotic fluid rupture. You may experience a trickle or a gush of water from your vagina. If this happens, call your doctor or midwife. If the fluid is green or brown it might mean there is meconium (‘baby poo’) in the water and you may need to go to hospital for extra monitoring.

What is 'a show'?

During your pregnancy, a thick plug of mucus seals the cervix to protect your baby from infection. ‘A show’ is this plug of mucus coming out of the cervix.

Early in the lead-up to your labour, your cervix begins to soften, open and thin out. The show will become loose and come out of your vagina. It can come away in one piece or in several pieces. Not all women will have or see a show.

The show can sometimes include blood streaks, or it may be pink or brown in colour. This is normal, but if you start to lose more blood after the show has come out, contact your doctor or midwife immediately.

A show can happen days or even weeks before you notice contractions and labour begins.

When do you get early signs of labour?

Every labour is different and starts in different ways. Even if you have had a baby before, there’s no way of predicting when and how this labour will start. Most women experience the early signs of labour between 37 and 42 weeks of pregnancy.

The first stage of labour — from the time your cervix starts to soften until the baby is born — can last for hours or days. You might not feel anything at first, although you will have more discomfort as the contractions start to become strong and regular.

When does it become labour?

You are in labour when your contractions become regular. You will probably need to go to hospital when your contractions are 5 minutes apart (measured from the start of one contraction to the start of the next).

You should also go to the hospital if your waters break or you are bleeding bright red blood.

What are the signs that something is wrong?

If you experience early signs of labour before you are 37 weeks pregnant, you may be at risk of premature labour. If you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor or midwife straight away:

  • contractions every 10 minutes or less
  • a ‘show’ (when the mucus plug that sealed your cervix comes away)
  • waters breaking (when you leak fluid from your vagina)
  • bleeding from your vagina
  • a feeling of pressure in your vagina or back passage

Let your doctor or midwife know straight away if you notice your baby’s movements have decreased or stopped.

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Last reviewed: November 2021


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