Symptoms of labour

While every labour is different, there are some common signs that your body is getting ready to deliver your baby. Find out what these signs and symptoms are, and when to call your midwife.

The start of labour, when early signs start, is called the latent phase. This is when your cervix becomes soft and thin as it gets ready to open up (dilate) for your baby to be born. 

How will I know if I am in labour?

You may be unsure whether you’re in labour or not, especially if this is your first baby. While it differs for each person, and every pregnancy, there are some signs that labour may be starting. These include:

  • A ‘show’, which is when the mucus plug from your cervix (the entrance to your womb) comes away. It may look like a pink-brown jelly-like blob, streaked with blood. 
  • Contractions, or feelings of tightening, in your womb. They may be painless at first, or feel like strong period cramps. They may be irregular, stopping and starting, or they may get longer and more regular before fading away again. Learn below what contractions feel like.
  • Lower back pain or a heavy aching feeling.
  • A sense of pressure in your pelvis and a feeling that you want to wee or poo. This is caused by your baby’s head moving down.
  • Your waters breaking. Find out below what if feels like when your waters break.

You can keep in touch with your midwife or maternity unit during early labour for advice and support. They can let you know when it is time to come to the hospital unit or birth centre.

Call your midwife or maternity unit straight away if you have any of the following. You will need to be checked by midwife or doctor:

If you are having a home birth, follow the steps you agreed with your midwife about the start of labour.

What do contractions feel like?

If you’ve already had Braxton Hicks in late pregnancy you may be wondering if these are just more of the same. Braxton Hicks are: 

  • often painless
  • irregular
  • short.

Early labour contractions tend to feel like period pains. Over time, they tend to get:

  • stronger
  • more regular
  • longer lasting.

At first, these contractions may stop and start and vary in frequency, strength and length. You may get lots of regular contractions and then they may slow down or stop. As your labour moves along, the contractions will become more intense and regular.

"For me, early labour felt like mild period pains, aching in my tummy and lower back that would come and then disappear again. The pain increased in frequency for a few hours and then the intensity increased rather suddenly, which wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be more gradual."


Call your midwife, birth centre or labour ward when your contractions are:

  • regular
  • strong
  • lasting for at least 60 seconds
  • coming every 5 minutes.

Call your midwife too if your contractions aren’t regular, but you think you’re in labour or you’re unsure. Your midwife can assess how far along you are over the phone. They can then let you know when you need to go to the maternity unit, hospital or birth centre.

What does it feel like when my waters break?

Your baby grows 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 known as your waters breaking.

If you have the following, your waters may have broken:

  • A popping feeling followed by a gush or trickle of fluid.
  • Lots of dampness in your knickers that does not smell like urine (wee).
  • Leaking of small or large amounts of fluid from your vagina that does not smell like urine.

Once your waters have broken, your baby is at risk of infection. Contact your midwife, hospital or birth centre. They may well ask you to come in to be checked if you’re not there already. 

Tell your midwife or hospital straight away if either:

  • your waters are smelly or coloured
  • you're losing blood.

This could mean you and your baby need urgent care.

Your waters may break before you go to hospital (if that’s where you plan to give birth), but they are more likely to break shortly before or during labour. 

Sometimes, your midwife may break your waters for you, to speed up your labour. This is known as amniotomy, or artificial rupture of membranes (ARM).

Find out more about your waters breaking

How can I cope at home during early labour?

There are lots of things you can try at home to ease your discomfort during early labour. These include:

  • Walking or moving about.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids and having light snacks.
  • Practising relaxation and breathing techniques.
  • Having a warm bath or shower.
  • Taking paracetamol.
  • Having your partner or a friend rub or massage your back.
  • Using hot water bottles or heat pads for backache or tummy cramps.
  • Using a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine to help with the pain.
  • Having a sleep, if you can, or simply resting between contractions.

Find out more about managing pain in labour and how your labour will progress.

NHS (2023) Signs that labour has begun. Available at: (Accessed 27 March 2024) (Page last reviewed 09/11/2023. Next review due 09/11/2026) 

NHS (2023) What happens at the hospital or birth centre. Available at: (Accessed 27 March 2024) (Page last reviewed 07/11/2023. Next review due 07/11/2026) 

Marshall, J. Raynor, M. (2020) Myles Textbook for Midwives, 17th ed. Edinburgh/London: Elsevier

RCOG (2019) When your waters break prematurely. Available at: (Accessed 27 March 2024) (Page last reviewed 06/2019) 

NICE (2021) Inducing labour: NICE clinical guideline 207. Available at: (Accessed 27 March 2024) (Page last reviewed 04/11/2021) 

NHS (2023) Pain relief in labour. Available at: (Accessed 27 March 2024) (Page last reviewed 13/03/2023. Next review due 13/03/2026) 

Review dates
Reviewed: 28 March 2024
Next review: 28 March 2027