Pregnant Wonder holding her stomach
Louise Broadbridge
Louise Broadbridge
Signs of labour

What are the signs of labour?

If your due date is approaching, you may be starting to wonder how you will be able to tell whether labour has started.

Portrayals of childbirth on TV and in movies often show the start of labour as being quite a dramatic event, but for most women it is a slower and more subtle process. But there are some signs to look for that indicate that labour has begun and your baby is on the way.

The early signs and symptoms of labour

You may have experienced Braxton Hicks in the later stages of your pregnancy. These practise contractions can feel very much like the real thing, and you may think labour has started when it hasn’t.

Braxton Hicks can be uncomfortable, but they are not usually painful. They also usually last 30 seconds or less and come and go.

If you start to experience regular contractions, which build in intensity and last around a minute, this is usually a good sign that labour has started. If you’re not sure whether you are having contractions or Braxton Hicks, the best thing to do is wait and see. If the pains are still coming after an hour, you are likely to be in the first stage of labour.

When you experience a contraction, your bump will tighten, and the pain will ebb and flow like a wave. It will start out mild and then grow in intensity before dying again.

However, not everyone will have noticeable contractions in the early stages of labour. Instead, you might feel more of a dull and constant ache in your back or something that seems similar to period pains.

One sign that labour has started is feeling pressure in your pelvis, and you may need to urgently go to the toilet. This happens because your baby will be head down and getting into the right position to be born, and this can involve pushing against your bowel.

What is a show?

Some women notice what is referred to as "a show in their knickers" when labour has either started or is likely to start soon. This is a heavy discharge of mucus and blood that had previously been plugging the entrance to your cervix. When this happens, it is a sign that your baby is getting ready to be born.

For others, the first sign they are in labour might be their waters breaking. This might be a huge gush of water or a slow leak that you barely notice. However, if you think your waters have broken, it is important to speak to your midwife for advice.

What do I do if labour has started?

The first thing to do if labour has started is to stay calm. For most women, especially those expecting their first baby, the early stage of labour is slow, so there is no need to do anything at all except rest.

If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant or there is a medical reason why you are likely to need close supervision or assistance during childbirth, call your midwife or the maternity hospital for advice—the number will be on the front of your maternity notes. Otherwise, you are fine to stay at home if you are able to cope with the pains you are having. Let your chosen birth partner know you think your labour has started so they can support you and make sure they can be there at the delivery.

Known as the latent stage of labour, the beginning of childbirth can take a long time—even a few days in some cases. Your cervix will start to soften, thin, and then gradually open to allow your baby to be born.

You might want to keep a note of when you are having contractions and time them so you can see how long they are lasting and how far apart they are. Try to stay active if you are able to, and drink plenty of fluids so you don’t become dehydrated. It is also important to eat something if you can to keep your energy levels up.

There are a number of things you can do at home to manage the pain, including breathing exercises, asking your partner to give you a back rub, and taking paracetamol—but be careful not to take more than the recommended dose. Have you signed up for our FREE Labour & Birth class?  Click here to book your place so that you feel more than ready for the big day!

When should I seek help during labour?

If there is anything you are worried about, call your midwife for advice. This is especially important if you notice a change in your baby’s movements, your water breaks, or you notice any bleeding.

When your contractions are lasting for a minute or longer and are five minutes apart or less, this is a sign that your labour is progressing. If you are due to give birth in hospital, it is a good idea to call the maternity unit you are booked to deliver in at this stage and you may be asked to come in at this point. If you are planning to have a home birth, you will need to call your midwife so she can come and assist you.

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