If you’re keenly awaiting signs of your baby’s imminent arrival, you may be surprised to learn that many women don’t realize they’re in labour straight away. Believe it or not, it can be hard to determine if you’re really in labour during the early stages, or whether it’s a false alarm.
Early signs of labour
What happens during the early stages of labour?
During the early phase of labour, contractions begin as your cervix begins to soften and thin, and gradually starts to open up (dilate) for your baby to be born.
How long does early labour last?
This is usually the longest stage of labour. It can take hours or in some cases days before you’re in established or ‘active’ labour and are having regular contractions.
What should I do if I think I'm in labour?
The first thing to do is relax. Staying calm will enable your body to release oxytocin more easily – the hormone that helps you to cope with labour and helps your labour to progress.
Your midwife has probably told you there’s no need to contact them until you’re having regular contractions that are lasting 60 seconds and are 5 minutes apart1. But of course, there’s no harm in calling them if you have any concerns or need some extra reassurance.
You should also call your midwife if:
- Your waters break
- You’re bleeding
- You notice your baby isn’t moving as often as usual
Tuning into your breathing, having a warm bath or shower or even some gentle massage are all good ways to help you stay relaxed and help ease any pain. Now’s a good time to start using your TENS machine if you have one in order to feel maximum benefit from it2. It’s also safe to take some paracetamol to ease any aches and pains1.
It's also important to try to eat and drink, if you can, so that you have more energy when in active labour. Try some of our recommended snacks and foods for labour. It’s important to listen to your body and only eat if you feel like it – if you’re feeling nauseous, food’s probably best avoided.
What are the early signs of labour?
This is when the muscles in your womb tighten and then relax to move your baby down the birth canal. In early labour contractions can be quite short and far apart, but as your labour progresses they’ll get progressively longer, more frequent and more intense.
You should call your midwife once they last at least 60 seconds and are 5 minutes apart.
This is a pink, jelly-like plug of mucus which is released from your cervix when it begins to open (dilate) in preparation for birth, and may pass out of your vagina.
This can be caused by the weight of your baby pressing down on your bowels. Some women also experience diarrhoea as their body prepares for labour and birth
This often feels like the heavy, aching sensation you may feel during your period. This may be a sign of your muscles and joints stretching and shifting in preparation for birth. It may also be a sign that your baby’s head has moved down into your pelvis and ‘engaged’ in a good position for birth.
This is when the amniotic sac that your baby develops in breaks and the amniotic fluid drains out. It may come as a slow trickle, or it may come as a sudden gush that you can’t control.
You should call your midwife to let them know your waters have broken because without amniotic fluid, there’s an increased risk of infection for your baby. Most women go into labour within 24 hours of their waters breaking, but if you don’t you’ll be offered an induction to try and get things moving.
- NHS. Signs that labour has begun. [Online]. 2017. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/labour-signs-what-happens/ [Accessed April 2020]
- NHS. Pain relief in labour. [Online]. 2020. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pain-relief-labour/ [Accessed April 2020]
Last reviewed: 27th April 2020