Signs of labour: how to know you’re going into labour

Find out the early signs of labour so you can be prepared.
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  • Why won't that niggling backache just go away? Find out which signs might mean that you're going into labour.

    You can’t predict exactly when you’re going to go into labour when you’re pregnant, but you can keep an eye out for signs of labour. Very early signs of labour can begin up to a week before you give birth, so you can prepare yourself for the impending birth of your baby.

    Just as every labour is different, every woman’s experience of the lead-up to labour varies. Some women don’t notice any warning signs, while others have all the symptoms and realise that labour isn’t far away. For most women, however, things start off slowly and build up until labour finally arrives.

    What are the signs of labour to look out for? Make sure you read our guide on everything you need to know about spotting labour signs.

    How do I know if labour has started?

    You may experience some of the following early signs of labour up to a week before your labour starts. However you may not experience all of them, so don’t feel like you have to tick everything on the list.

    Do not worry if you’ve gone past your ‘due date‘. If you’ve had a healthy pregnancy, then your baby will arrive when it’s good and ready. Whilst there are ways you can induce labour naturally, studies show that first-time pregnancies most often happen up to 5 days past the ‘due date’. If you’ve had a healthy pregnancy, try not to become anxious about every twinge: you’re better off relaxing and allowing nature to take its course. Once you really are in labour, you will most certainly know about it.

    What are signs of early labour?

    Signs of labour starting are usually early indications that your body is preparing for birth. This includes the baby moving down and putting different pressure on your body, as well as hormonal changes necessary for birth to begin. Read our week-by-week pregnancy guide to understand how your body changes throughout pregnancy.

    Here are some of the most common signs that labour is on its way:

    Backache

    Lower back pain is an early sign of labour. You might think that when labour is imminent that you’ll have pains in your abdomen, but for some women labour pain start in their back! This could just be a dull ache, or a feeling of increasing pressure which is a good sign. Try to do some gentle stretches, or cat-cow yoga stretches on your hands and knees, to ease out that tension.

    Baby starts moving down

    If you can suddenly breathe more easily it may be that your baby has moved further down into the birth canal, which is also a sign of things starting to progress as the baby prepares for birth. You’ll also feel more pressure on your bladder, though, and need to go to the toilet more regularly.

    Braxton Hicks

    You may have experienced some Braxton Hicks during your pregnancy, which is when the womb contracts. They may become closer together, more intense and more uncomfortable in the lead-up to labour.

    Contractions in early labour

    What’s a contraction?

    It’s when the uterus tightens to open the cervix and move the baby down.

    What do they feel like?

    They feel like a tightening across your stomach. Period pains are mild contractions, so they’re like stronger versions of those.

    What’s the difference between Braxton Hicks and contractions?

    You need to count them and time them. If they become more frequent and last longer than 40 seconds, they’re likely to be labour contractions.

    Here are more tips on how to tell the difference between Braxton Hicks and contractions in early labour:

    Diarrhoea or vomiting

    This is thought to be because the body is clearing itself out in preparation for birth. You may also feel the need to go to the toilet more as the baby’s head presses on your bowel as it moves down the birth canal.

    Nesting as a sign of labour

    Do you have an urge to tidy the house, clean the fridge or dust the lampshades, even though your big bump means you can barely move? Pregnant women (and animals) have an uncontrollable urge (a primal need) to create a nice, safe home for their offspring. If you get this urge near your due date it could be a sign that labour’s on its way!

    You’ll have a ‘show’

    What’s a show?

    While you’re pregnant your cervix is sealed by a plug of mucus.  When birth is imminent the plug (also known as a show, or bloody show) releases from your cervix, perhaps with a bit of blood. Some women experience a ‘show’ a few days before labour gets going and in some it’s just a few hours before.

    What does a show look like?

    The plug is made of mucus, so it looks jelly-like and may be stained with a bit of blood or be brownish in colour. It could come away in one go, or in parts.

    When should I be worried?

    If there’s a lot of blood it could be a sign that something’s wrong, so call your midwife or your hospital straight away.

    Your waters will break

    What are ‘waters’?

    Your waters are the amniotic fluid inside the sac to protect the baby from infection and injury. When the baby’s ready to be born the sac breaks and the fluid leaves the body through your vagina.

    Will it hurt?

    No, it won’t hurt. You might feel a pop and then a trickle, or a gush of water. The liquid is clear and straw-coloured. If it’s brown or green or any other colour you should contact your midwife.

    How much liquid is there?

    By the time you’re 36 weeks pregnant it’s about one and three quarter pints.

    How do I know I’m not just leaking urine?

    If you’re leaking urine you should have some control over the flow. Also amniotic fluid smells different to urine. A single sanitary liner won’t be able to absorb all the liquid.

    Will I go into labour as soon as my waters break?

    Not necessarily. For some women contractions start immediately with a feeling of period pain that grows in intensity until they’re full-blown contractions. At the other end of the scale some women don’t get any contractions at all and still need to be induced.

    What should I do if my waters break?

    If you think your waters have broken, or even if you’re not sure, call your midwife or labour ward. They will need to determine whether you need to go in to hospital. If your waters have broken early, you and your baby are at risk of infection if you don’t then go into labour so your midwife may ask you to come into hospital.

    I’ve got signs of labour. What shall I do?

    Don’t panic! Call your midwife or labour ward for advice. They will ask you a few questions and confirm whether you need to go in for a check-up.

    Even if they check you and send you home again, you’ll be reassured that labour is progressing. Or you may find that it’s the real deal and your baby is on its way.