Tommy's PregnancyHub

How will I know when labour has started?

This is a common worry for first-time mums, but there are some signs that labour may be starting.

If your pregnancy is considered high risk or you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, contact your maternity unit if you think labour has started or if there is anything you’re worried about.

Every woman’s experience of labour is different. But there are several signs that labour may be starting. You may experience:

  • a ‘show’, which is when the mucus plug from your cervix comes away – it appears as a pink-brown jelly-like blob or in pieces
  • pains in your tummy that may feel like strong period pains – these these are the start of contractions
  • lower back pain
  • an urge to go to the toilet – this is caused by your baby’s head pressing on your bowel.

Your waters may also break or you might start feeling contractions. These will be different from the practice Braxton Hicks contractions that you may already have had. They feel stronger, deeper and more painful.

Call your midwife, birth centre or hospital labour ward and tell them what’s happening. The start of labour is called the latent stage and can last hours or, for some women, days. If you are more than 37 weeks with an uncomplicated pregnancy, you’ll probably be advised to stay at home until your labour is ‘established’. This is when your cervix opens (dilates) to at least 4cm and your contractions become stronger and more regular.

Find out more about what happens in labour.

Once labour gets going, your contractions will become more regular and won't go away. Call your midwife, birth centre or hospital labour ward when you are having a contraction every 5 minutes that last 30–60 seconds. If you have chosen a home birth, the midwife will come to you.

If this is not your first baby, or you are likely to have a quick labour, your midwife may advise you to call earlier than this.

Call the labour ward or your midwife If you're still not sure whether you're in labour. They are used to dealing with false alerts so don't worry about wasting anyone’s time.

Wondering what to expect from those first twinges? Find out what contractions really feel like.

NHS Choices. Signs that labour has begun. (Page last reviewed: 09/11/2017 Next review due: 011/2020)

NICE (2017). Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies National Institute for health and care excellence

Review dates
Reviewed: 05 June 2019
Next review: 25 June 2022

This content is currently being reviewed by our team. Updated information will be coming soon.