4 ways your body gets ready for labour
1. You have Braxton Hicks contractions
During your pregnancy, you may feel your tummy tighten for a few seconds, then relax again. This can happen from the middle of your pregnancy and are thought of as 'practice' contractions. They do not mean you are in labour and are nothing to worry about.
As the end of pregnancy approaches, Braxton Hicks contractions may become more powerful, so it's easy to mistake them for the start of labour. Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and don't last very long. Although they can be uncomfortable, they aren’t painful.
Find out more about the difference between Braxton Hicks and labour contractions.
Contact your midwife, birth centre or labour ward for advice if you're worried that the tightenings you're feeling might be the start of labour.
2. Your baby settles into position
Babies move around a lot in your womb during pregnancy but at some point in late pregnancy your baby will get into position for birth. If this is your first baby, you may find he or she is already in position by 35 weeks.
Remember, you should continue to feel your baby move right up to the time you go into labour and during labour. If you think your baby’s movements have slowed down, stopped or changed, contact your midwife or maternity unit immediately. Find out more about your baby’s movements.
The most common position for birth is head down with your baby's back facing outwards, which is called an anterior position. The is the ideal position for giving birth, because your baby may fit through your pelvis more easily.
If your baby is head-down but facing your tummy, this is called the posterior position. Some midwives and antenatal teachers believe that spending time leaning forwards (for example, being on your hands and knees or leaning forward over a beanbag or birth ball) can help encourage them to turn.
Whether your baby turns or not, you may find it comfortable to be in this during late pregnancy and labour, so it's worth a try.
Find out more about getting your baby in the best position for birth.
Your baby is in breech position if they are sitting bottom or feet down in the womb. If your baby is in a breech position at 36 weeks, you may be offered an external cephalic version (ECV). This is when a doctor tries to turn the baby into a head-down position by putting pressure on your stomach.
This is a safe procedure that will be done at the hospital. Around 50% of breech babies can be turned using ECV.
Find out more about what happens when your baby is breech.
If this is your first baby, they will usually may move down into your pelvis before the birth. This is called 'engaging' and when it happens any breathlessness you've been feeling will probably ease. Second or later babies may also do this, but it may not happen as early.
If you're having twins or triplets, your babies may be in different positions. All the babies’ positions are important, but your healthcare team will be more interested in the position of the first baby when considering how you will give birth.
3. You have a 'show'
When you are pregnant, a small plug of mucus blocks the entrance to your cervix (the neck of your womb).
As your cervix begins to stretch and get ready for the birth, this mucus plug starts to come away and you may notice it on your underwear. This is called a ‘show’, although not everyone will experience this.
The show is pink because it’s bloodstained. It’s normal to lose a small amount of blood with the mucus, but if you’re losing more blood it may be a sign something is wrong. Call your hospital or midwife straight away if you’re concerned.
Your labour may not start for hours or even days after you lose the mucus plug. Or you could already be in early labour. If you're full term when the mucus plug comes out, you may have other signs that labour has started.
If you think the mucus plug has come out before you're 37 weeks pregnant, call your midwife. You may not be in labour, but it’s best to get checked out.
4. Your waters break
Your baby develops inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac. When your baby is ready to be born the sac breaks and the fluid comes out through your vagina. This is your waters breaking. Your waters may break at any time during labour. Some babies are even born in their waters.
You may have a big gush of water or just a trickle, so you may not be sure whether your waters have broken or you've just wet yourself. If you think your waters have broken, contact your midwife or hospital straight away as they may want to give you a check-up.
It is a good idea to make a note of when your waters broke so you can tell the midwife.
Tell your midwife straight away if:
- the waters are smelly or coloured
- you’re losing blood.
This could mean you and your baby need urgent attention. It may help to wear a sanitary pad (not a tampon) so you can show the midwife what’s happening.
If your waters break before you go into labour
Sometimes your waters may break before you go into labour. Most women go into labour on their own within 24 hours. If this doesn’t happen your midwife will offer to induce labour and you’ll be advised to give birth in hospital, if you’re not there already.
This is because your waters breaking before labour starts increases your baby’s risk of infection.
Find out more about what to expect when your waters break.
Raines, Deborah A (2019) Braxton Hicks Contractions, StatPearls Publishing LLC
NHS Choices. What happens if your baby is breech? https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/breech-birth/ (Page last reviewed: 06/11/2017. Next review due: 06/11/2020)
NHS Choices. Signs that labour has begun https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/labour-signs-what-happens/#what-happens-when-my-waters-break (Page last reviewed: 09/11/2017. Next review due: 09/11/2020)
NICE (2014). Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies. National Institute for health and care excellence https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg190