Mother and Baby

The early labour signs you need to look out for

Your due date’s getting closer, but how will you know the labour signs to look out for? Even the most subtle changes can indicate your baby is on the way.

What are the early signs of labour to look out for? 

We’ve rounded up the clues:

Expecting a dramatic Call The Midwife-style birth? Relax. Most labours begin gently, gradually developing over hours or even days (sorry!).

Make a mental checklist of these early clues that let you know it’s really happening.

Your waters break

Otherwise known as the moment the sac of amniotic fluid surrounding your baby ruptures.

This can happen as an all-in-one gush, or a slow trickle that lasts a few days. Your waters can break any time during labour or birth, or they may be broken by a midwife to help kick-start labour.

Your waters can break any time during labour or birth. 

If your waters do break, call the maternity unit. Once your waters break, you’re at risk of infection, so the midwives may want you to go in.

They will also ask you about the fluid: it should be a straw-like colour and have a sweet odour. If your waters are green, your baby may have emptied her bowels, a sign of distress, and you’ll need to go to hospital to be checked over.

You have backache

An ache in your lower back can mean your baby is rotating into the right position for labour.

"This can take a few days and may be painful," says antenatal teacher Philippa Bennett.

"It could also be the start of your contractions – some women experience them more in their back than their stomach."

An ache in your lower back can mean your baby is rotating into the right position for labour.

Get through the discomfort by taking the recommended dose of paracetamol, then put your feet up, ask your partner for a back rub and have warm a bath.

You have a ‘show’

A mucus plug covers your cervix in pregnancy and this may come loose up to a few days before labour starts.

A brown, pink or red-tinged stringy or jelly-like discharge, it can come out either in one lump or more gradually over a few days.

"Speak to a midwife just to make sure you’re not bleeding," says Philippa.

If it’s bright red or the discharge starts to look heavy, head to hospital. If your midwife is happy, just eat, sleep and relax before things really get going.

Your nipples leak

It’s not just during breastfeeding that nipples can leak – it’s all throughout your final trimester.

That said, you’ll probably notice it most in the last few weeks before your baby arrives. The milk you’re leaking is colostrum, a nutrient-rich liquid that will nourish your baby until your proper milk comes in a couple of days after the birth.

If you’re getting wet patches on your clothes, buy some disposable breast pads that you can pop inside your bra.


The hormones that help your uterus contract can also sometimes cause diarrhoea in the hours before birth.

If this happens, increase the amount of water you’re drinking and hold off on milk or sugary drinks, which can make diarrhoea worse.

Try eating bland food such as rice to keep your energy levels up.

Swollen down below

Pregnancy has a tendency to leave you feeling swollen in different areas of your body (cankles, anyone?), and that includes your labia at the entrance to your vagina.

"It can be disconcerting, but it’s very normal," says Dr Beckett.

"It’s caused by the increase in blood volume in your body. When your baby moves down into your pelvis, generally after week 37, it also puts more pressure around your vagina, making it feel swollen."

Ease any discomfort by placing an ice pack in a clean tea towel and resting it on the area.

Heartburn relief

As your bump grows, your baby will push your stomach upwards. This forces acid in your stomach into your oesophagus, causing heartburn.

"Luckily, in the weeks running up to your due date, you may notice symptoms get slightly better," says midwife Helen Taylor.

"This is because your baby has dropped, which means he’s moved down into your pelvis ready for birth." 

You may also find that you can breathe more easily because your baby isn’t pushing against your lungs and decreasing their capacity. 

Frequent toilet stops

With a growing baby bump that presses on your bladder, you’ll find you need to pee more regularly during pregnancy. But this could increase even further in the final week before birth, as your baby positions himself in your pelvis.

Carry on drinking water as you don’t want to become dehydrated, but avoid coffee, soft drinks and citrus fruits as these tend to irritate the bladder.

A sudden burst of energy

If getting up off the sofa is about as much activity as you can manage for most of your last trimester, the sudden spurt of energy you get in the days before labour starts (and the urge to clean out your kitchen cupboards) is often a not-unpleasant surprise.

Make the most of it! Sort out the house, organise your baby’s clothes and set up a few change stations ready for her arrival home.

Walking differently

If your gait has started to resemble a cross between a cowboy and a duck, (attractive!) it could well be a sign your baby will soon be arriving.

"Your pelvis widens in preparation for birth, which can affect the way you walk," says independent midwife Virginia Howes.

If your walk has changed and you’re also experiencing discomfort, it could be a sign of pelvic girdle pain (PGP).

"Talk to your GP who may refer you to a physiotherapist. They can teach you exercises or provide a special belt to help support your pelvis," says Virginia.


Firstly, are you sure these aren’t Braxton Hicks?

"These short, painless, tightening sensations mean your uterus is gearing up for labour," says Erika.

Real contractions tend to start weak, perhaps feeling like period pain, then grow in frequency and intensity.

"Don’t rush to hospital, but do let the unit know what’s happening," says Philippa.

Instead, take the recommended dose of paracetamol and try to chill out. Established labour is usually when you have three, one-minute contractions in the space of 10 minutes.

When the contractions become so intense, you struggle to talk, you’ll know it’s definitely time to head to hospital.

Did you see all of these signs? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

Now read:

Early labour –  could you (and should you!) sleep?

26 ways to reduce labour pain (that really work!)

Hospital bag checklist - what you need according to mums and experts


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