Stephanie Martin

Am I In Labour? Signs of Early Labour

Every expectant mother wonders when labour will start. How will you know if the baby is on the way? Are aches and pains just braxton hicks or the real deal? Check out our early signs of labour to find out if your baby could soon be making their arrival. 

Signs of early labour...

1. Baby dropping

Also known as lightening, when baby's head drops into an engaged position in your pelvis. If you're a first time mum this can start to happen a few weeks before your baby arrives. For subsequent births it can happen when you're in Labour. Baby's head will be pushing down on your bladder making bathroom trips a lot more frequent.

2. A 'show' 

During pregnancy, there's a plug of mucus in your cervix. This plug can come away with the pressure of babies head in your cervix, or it could come away in early labour. This small amount of sticky, jelly-like pink mucus is called a show, bloody show or mucus plug.

It may come away in one blob or in several pieces. It's pink in colour because it's bloodstained. It's normal to lose a small amount of blood mixed with the mucus.

If you're losing more blood, it may be a sign something is wrong, so phone your hospital or midwife straight away.

A show indicates that the cervix is starting to open. Labour may quickly follow or may take a few days. Some women don't have a show. A 'show' doesn't mean labour is imminent. If your show is combined with regular contractions call your midwife

3. Braxton Hicks

Braxton hicks can start at around 16 weeks - they usually last less than a minute and could happen a few times an hour, or a few times a day.

Practice 'Braxton Hicks' contractions, which feel like a tightening in the abdomen may become more frequent and intense. If contractions become more regular and stronger instead of easing up, it's time to call the maternity unit. 

How are Braxton Hicks different from labour contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions:

  • Are not frequent, and usually happen no more than once or twice an hour, a few times a day.
  • Often stop if you change activity. So walk about if you’ve been sitting, and sit down if you’ve been on your feet for a while.
  • Are usually irregular, or if they are regular, only stay that way for a short period of time
  • Only usually last 30-60 seconds
  • Unpredictable and not continuous.
  • Don’t increase in intensity.

4. Lower back pain

Cramps and pain in your lower back can be indication labour is in sight. It may feel like a persistent dull ache. Around 25% of women experience 'back labour' - uterine contractions can cause regular and back contractions. Baby is usually 'sunny side up' or facing your abdomen when back labour occurs. The pressure from baby's head on the sacrum (tailbone) can cause back labour.

5. Nesting

The sudden urge to clean and organise the house, also known as 'nesting' can be a sign that labour is coming. 

Researchers at McMaster University in Canada found in a 2013 study that the urge to nest stems from an inbuilt need in a mum to 'protect and prepare' for her unborn baby.

In the same study, they also discovered that during the nesting period, pregnant women become more selective about the company they keep, and prefer to spend time only with people they trust. Research concluded that for mums-to-be, having control over their environment is key feature of preparing for childbirth.

This may be the reason why you're scrubbing the skirting boards and spring cleaning the house, instead of relaxing with a magazine and a cuppa.

6. Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is very common before labour starts. In the days prior to birth, the hormone prostaglandin will stimulate your bowels to open more frequently. As labour approaches, you might notice diarrhoea or very loose bowel movements - this is what they call 'clearing out the body for baby's arrival'. You may also experience nausea and sickness in early labour.

7. Waters Breaking - What happens when my waters break?

Most women's waters break during labour, but it can also happen before labour starts.

Your unborn baby develops and grows inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac. When it's time for your baby to be born, the sac usually breaks and the amniotic fluid drains out through your vagina. This is your waters breaking. Sometimes when you're in labour, a midwife or doctor may offer to break your waters.

If your waters break naturally, you may feel a slow trickle or a sudden gush of water you can't control. To prepare for this, you could keep a sanitary towel (but not a tampon) handy if you're going out, and put a protective sheet on your bed.

Amniotic fluid is clear and a pale straw colour. Sometimes it's difficult to tell amniotic fluid from urine. When your waters break, the water may be a little bloodstained to begin with.Tell your midwife immediately if:

  • the waters are smelly or coloured
  • you're losing blood

This could mean you and your baby need urgent attention.

If your waters break before labour starts, call your midwife. Use a sanitary pad (not a tampon) so your midwife can check the colour of the waters

If labour doesn't start after your waters break

Most women go into labour within 24 hours of their waters breaking. You'll be offered an induction if you don't because, without amniotic fluid, there's an increased risk of infection for your baby.

Until your induction, or if you choose to wait for labour to start naturally, tell your midwife immediately if:

  • your baby moves less than usual
  • there's any change in the colour or smell of any fluid coming from your vagina

What to do if you think you are in labour

  • Call your midwife or maternity unit for guidance
  • Let your birth partner know that labour has started
  • If you are having a home birth, let your midwife know
  • If you are going to the hospital, check that you have everything you will need such as your pregnancy notes, hospital bag, car keys, money for parking or taxi
  • If you have other children and have to arrange childcare, let them know
  • Try to track how much time there is between your contractions and how long they last - Most hospitals suggest waiting until your contractions are coming every 5 minutes - time them for an hour to be sure. If they're increasing in intensity and becoming more frequent head to the hospital

Read more on the 3 Stages of Labour

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