Early signs of labour

Woman early labour

As you near the end of pregnancy, every twinge can have you running for your hospital bag. So how do you know when you're in labour, and what should you do once “is this it?” becomes a very definite “oh, THIS is it”?

What are the very first signs of labour?

Before any of the obvious signs arrive, you might notice subtle differences in the way you feel during the days before labour gets started. Here are some of the things that might give you a nudge to put the final touches to the nursery and get ready for birth.

My bump has dropped

Around the time of your due date, you might notice that your bump is a bit lower down than usual. Often it's someone else who will helpfully point out that you've “dropped”, as it can be quite hard to see the difference from above. What you might notice is that you suddenly feel like you can breathe again. This is because your baby has dropped down into your pelvis, ready to be born, so is no longer pushing up against your lungs in your rib cage. This process is known as “lightening” and you will indeed feel lighter for it.

My heartburn has disappeared

When your baby drops down into your pelvis, it often means that if you’ve suffered from heartburn in pregnancy it eases off now as there's more room in your upper torso.

I need to wee all the time – is it a sign of labour?

You probably feel like you've spent half your life on the loo during pregnancy but yes, a sudden increase in your toilet trips is a sign things are moving. As the baby drops lower into the pelvis, it releases pressure on your lungs, so you'll feel less breathless, but unfortunately that means the baby is now pushing down on your bladder instead. Still, at least you'll have enough breath to emit a really long sigh of relief when you get to the loo, desperate for a pee.

I’m cleaning everything – am I “nesting”?

Pregnant woman nesting

Quite possibly. Cats, dogs and even birds (the clue's in the name) prepare for their new arrivals by suddenly having a frenzied spring clean of their home. It's debatable whether or not this is a scientific phenomenon or just good sense, seeing as you're well aware you're going to have your hands full pretty soon and might not wield a Hoover again for a few weeks. If you're itching to “get stuff done” before baby arrives, instead of painting the ceiling or anything even more inadvisable, think about doing a massive cook-up for the freezer – your future self will thank you for it once the baby is here.

I had a desperate urge to tidy the house. I scrubbed, washed up, and dusted, thinking “these Braxton Hicks contractions are getting really strong”…

Is a sudden burst of energy a symptom of labour?

Many women say they felt weirdly “good” and “energetic” right before labour began – it's as if your body is giving you one last chance to muster all you've got for “the big push”. By all means make the most of it, but make sure you get lots of rest, too.

“I felt eerily great the day before – I did a big food shop and remember noticing my pelvis wasn't aching like it had been for months and I didn't feel tired.”

Is disturbed sleep a sign labour is coming?

Lots of women report feeling restless and anxious and therefore not sleeping so well in the days before they went into labour. If you can, have a nap during the day to catch up – you're going to need all your energy fairly soon to deliver your baby.

Can mood swings mean labour is imminent?

Frankly, who wouldn't feel a bit irritable after 40 weeks of aches, pains, tiredness, nausea and the prospect of pushing a baby out at the end of it all. But yes, feeling grumpy and even a bit tearful and “pre-menstrual” can be signs your baby is almost here.

I felt really irritable and strange. I had been having period-like pains for a few days and when I saw the midwife in the morning I was really teary-eyed and I think she knew, too, that I would be in labour later that day.

Am I in early labour?

Just as everyone's birth is different, so is the preamble to labour. Some women have days of niggling backache that gradually ramps up, others have their waters burst suddenly and dramatically and it's all over in a flash. There are a few signs you can look out for, though, that might just indicate your baby is just about to hit the eject button and it's time to grab your hospital bag and get yourself to wherever you have chosen to give birth.

I've got an upset stomach – is this labour?

A dodgy tummy, particularly diarrhoea, can be a sign that early labour is imminent. It's thought to be nature's way of preparing your body for labour – by voiding yourself early doors, you're giving your body one less job to do.

Prostaglandins – hormones that are released during labour – are designed to soften everything up, and unfortunately this includes your rectum as well as the birth canal. Interestingly, in days of yore, midwives would sometimes give women castor oil to loosen the bowels and bring on labour, so it works the other way round, too.

If you have an attack of the squits and are close to your due date, it might be more than over-indulgence the night before.

My back aches – is this labour?

Slightly different to “normal” pregnancy backache – backache that heralds the start of labour tends to more of a niggling pain, a bit like period pain. This can either go on for a few days, or it can start and then develop into contractions.

“I had a dull backache for a day or two (which I really didn't even associate with labour since it was well over a week until my due date) before the ever-delightful 'show' appeared one morning in the shower.”

Are these Braxton Hicks or the start of labour?

If you're close to your due date and you feel like your Braxton Hicks contractions are ramping up a few notches, you should be prepared for them to turn into full-blown contractions at some point.

Pregnant woman braxton hicks

It can be hard to tell Braxton Hicks from the real thing, but if the contractions seem to be getting closer together or stronger, and they aren't going away when you change position or rest, it might be that labour is imminent.

“I had irregular, stabby contractions. I didn't actually feel any tightening, but just on-off stabby pains in my hips. With my first child these lasted about two hours, and with my fourth it started the day before, stopped, then started again in the early hours of the morning. I got up, went to the toilet and my waters broke.”

What is a “show”?

A show is your mucus plug coming away from the neck of the cervix. It's a pinky-browny blob of mucus and can come away in one whole “blob” or a bit at a time. It's nothing to worry about, but if there's lots of blood with it or you have any concerns, tell your midwife. You often see a show a few days before labour starts.

First sign for me was 50 million gallons of water pouring out from me and ruining the mattress.

My waters have broken – am I in labour?

Your waters breaking is a pretty sure sign that labour is imminent – but it doesn't mean it will begin straight away. If your waters break, give your midwife a ring. Sometimes they like you to come in and check all is ok. You're also at more risk of picking up an infection once your waters have gone, and if labour doesn't start soon, they may want to induce you to get things started. It's worth checking that your waters are the colour of straw when they break. If you see anything that looks green or black, that could be meconium (your baby’s first poo) and may be a sign he is in distress. You should tell your midwives if you think there could be either meconium or blood in your waters.

When should I go to hospital when I'm in labour?

If you think you are in established labour (contractions are regular and getting closer together), it's worth giving the maternity unit a ring. Once your contractions last longer than 30 seconds, you're in “proper” labour. You don't need to go to hospital until they are regular, strong, and about five minutes apart. If you're not sure, the midwives will often be able to tell over the phone from the sound of your voice whether you're in active labour or have a while to go.

What should I do during early labour?

Whatever makes you happy and keeps you sane! Keep busy, try and get some sleep, have something to eat if you feel like it. It might help to keep moving and it's a good idea to drink plenty of water to keep your fluid levels up. You can use your contractions to try out some relaxation and breathing techniques, or visualisations, and see if they work for you, too. And obviously, make sure your birth partner is on standby and your hospital bag is ready by the door.