Signs and Symptoms of Labour

Signs of Labour: What to Look Out For

There are a number of different signs that may indicate that labour is not too far away. These can occur as much as a week or more before labour begins. You may also feel contractions that make you think you’re experiencing the real thing, but turn out to be practice contractions.

Wondering whether you’ll know when you are in early labour? You can find a list of the most common signs of labour here. But don't worry too much; your body will give you signals that you can recognise without a doubt.

Common Labour Signs

Although every labour is different and there is no definite set of events, some common early signs of labour include:

  • Lightening
    Your baby drops lower into your pelvis in the weeks or hours before labour. This is called lightening because you may find breathing a little easier as your baby will no longer be pressing against your diaphragm. On the other hand, you may feel like you need to urinate more often.
  • A Change in Energy Levels
    You may be feeling extra tired or experiencing a sudden surge of energy in the days or weeks before labour. You might also have the urge to nest and get prepared for the baby.
  • Bloody Show
    You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked discharge called a bloody show. This is the mucus plug that sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It usually appears within the two weeks before labour, although it’s not always noticeable.
  • Water Breaking
    Water breaking is one of the most common labour signs, usually taking place up to a day before delivery (but sometimes only during active labour), when the amniotic sac ruptures and releases the fluid inside. You could experience a gush of water or just a trickle. If your water breaks, notify your doctor or midwife.
  • Early Contractions
    These feel like menstrual cramps every 20 to 30 minutes, gradually becoming stronger and more frequent. When the contractions occur every three to five minutes, you’re in active labour. Time your contractions, or have someone time them for you.
  • Diarrhoea
    Loose bowels could be an extra indicator that you’re going into labour.

Definitely call your doctor or midwife if you notice bright red bleeding (not pale pink or dark brown), if your water breaks (especially if the fluid is green or brown or has a foul odour), if your baby is less active, or if you have a headache, vision problems, or sudden swelling, particularly in your face and hands. Also call your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms before 37 weeks when they could signal preterm labour.

What to Do When in Early Labour

Don’t panic if you only experience a few signs of labour approaching, because many women don’t notice all of them. If you think you are in labour, call your doctor or midwife, whether it’s day or night. Tell them your symptoms of labour, and keep in mind you may not need to go to the hospital immediately. Your doctor or midwife will give you guidance based on your labour signs and your individual situation.

Realising you're in labour can bring feelings ranging from excitement to disbelief or apprehension. Try to stay calm and focused. Arrange to have your partner or a family member with you to help record labour symptoms, keep you company, and get you to the hospital when the time comes.

How to Tell Real and False Labour Signs Apart

In your third trimester you may get ‘false’ or ‘practice’ contractions known as Braxton Hicks. These contractions may feel like the real thing, but if they don’t get stronger and closer together or come with other signs of labour, there is no need to call your doctor. These practice contractions are just one of the ways your body prepares for labour and nothing to worry about.

Keep an eye out for specific symptoms that point towards real labour, such as the bloody show or any of the symptoms above. But to help you tell the difference between true and false labour contractions at a glance, see our table below.

True Labour False Labour
Contractions are regular and follow a predictable pattern (such as every eight minutes). Contractions are irregular and unpredictable, occurring, for example, in intervals of ten minutes, then six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc.
You experience three types of progression: contractions become closer in time, longer, and stronger. No progression is seen over time in the closeness of the contraction intervals, length, or strength of the contractions.
Each contraction is felt starting at the lower back, radiating around to the front, low in the groin. Contractions are felt as a generalised abdominal tightening.
A change in activity or position will not slow or stop contractions. A change in activity or position may cause contractions to slow or stop.

False labour pain can be triggered by a variety of causes, such as dehydration or a full bladder, or even when the mother and baby are active. But if you feel any of the symptoms of labour or notice that your contractions are getting closer together and more intense, then consult your healthcare provider.

As you reach the end of your third trimester, the big day is coming up. To help you feel prepared, see our labour tips to help reduce any anxiety you may feel when you notice those early labour signs. You’re about to bring your baby into the world. You can do this!

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