Mother and Baby

Birth: 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.

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.

In this article:

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

'Labour tends to start gradually and lots of women wont even notice when it’s in it’s early stages,' says midwife Marley Hall. 'Regular tightening/cramping of the lower abdomen or back that steadily get stronger and closer together are the most common signs. The cramping may start off feeling like period type pain and may also be felt in the groin and thighs.'

There are signs that labour is imminent which include:

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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.

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.
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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 a warm bath.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. 
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Firstly, are you sure these aren’t Braxton Hicks?

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

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.

How much do the early signs differ from woman to woman?

'The signs that a woman will feel will depend on several factors including the position of the baby, whether or not you’ve had a baby before and your general well being,' continues Marley. 'If the baby is in a "back to back" also known as sunnyside up position, you may feel most of the contractions in your back. If you have laboured before with a previous birth, you may find that the contractions intensify quicker. Some women will notice losing their mucous plug and some won't. It varies pretty much from woman to woman.'

What’s normal and what signs should cause concern?

If you are experiencing regular contractions that are slowly intensifying and getting closer together this is a good sign as it means that you are stepping closer to meeting your baby! There are some situations however in which you should inform your care provider immediately:

  • If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and having signs of labour
  • If your baby’s movements are reduced – Your baby should still be moving, even during labour
  • If you notice any vaginal bleeding – slight pink mucous/ discharge (bloody show) is common in labour especially if the cervix is dilating rapidly but you should still mention it to your care provider.
  • If you are feeling unwell, have a temperature and/or rapid pulse
  • Your waters break and the colour is green or brown- this could be a sign that the baby has passed meconium (first poo) in the uterus and occasionally is a sign of distress.

How long can early labour last?

Labour is broken down into 3 stages: 

  1. The labour
  2. The birth of baby
  3. The birth of the placenta

The first stage however is broken down further into two more stages – Latent and established.

'The latent phase of labour is the earliest stage that occurs when a womans cervix is dilating up to 4cm,' explains Marley. 'This process can take hours or days for some women. It often takes a long time as the uterus is busy trying to coordinate itself to contract efficiently! Once a woman is in established labour, identified as being 4cm dilated and contracting at least every 4 minutes. This stage on average lasts between 8-12 hours for first time mums and around 5 hours for subsequent births.'


When should you go to hospital/call your midwife?

You should call the hospital midwife if:

  • You have been having strong contractions every 4 minutes (start of one contraction to the start of the next) for about 2 hours and they are lasting 50 secs- 1 minute.
  • If you think you are in labour and have a history of a precipitous (super rapid) birth, even if you are not contracting as above.
  • If you are experiencing any of the causes for concern mentioned.
  • If you are worried about anything at all or feel you need support, call your midwife.

What if it’s not my due date yet?

As above if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, call your care provider at the earliest opportunity.

Advice for keeping calm

'Take an antenatal class to keep you informed as to what to expect,' says Marley. 'Practice relaxation techniques that are used in programmes such as hypnobirthing. Write a birth plan and involve your birth partner, use positive affirmations throughout pregnancy to help you get into the right mindset and practice breathing techniques. Remember that each contraction will bring you closer to meeting your baby!'

Marley Hall is a midwife, speaker, Instagram content creator and mother of 5. Having spent 11 years working within the NHS, she now works privately, with a focus on educating parents about all aspects of pregnancy birth and beyond. Marley teaches parents through informative and humorous doodles via her Instagram page @midwifemarley and offers free birth guides via her website

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Having worked across a variety of magazines, on topics from food to travel to horses, Stephanie now works as a Digital Writer for Mother&Baby online. 

She loves taking her lurcher puppy Moss for long walks in the country, and spending time with her niece and two nephews. In her spare time she writes fiction books and enjoys baking (her signature bake is lemon drizzle cake).

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