There are several signs that labour may be starting, including:
- a ‘show’, which happens when the mucus plug from your cervix (the entrance to your womb) comes away, which is when the mucus plug from your cervix comes away – it appears as a pink-brown jelly-like blob or in pieces. On its own this doesn’t mean that labour has started
- pains that feel like strong period pains – 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 breaking.
The start of labour 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.
Call your midwife or maternity unit if:
- your waters break
- you're bleeding
- your baby is moving less than usual you should continue to feel your baby move right up to the time you go into labour and during labour).
- you're less than 37 weeks pregnant and think you might be in labour
What do contractions feel like?
Your early contractions may feel a bit like period pains and, if you’ve had them you might wonder whether they are just more Braxton Hicks contractions.
During a contraction, your tummy will feel hard as the muscles of your womb tense and work to gradually open your cervix and push your baby out. As labour goes on, the contractions will become more intense. Your muscles will relax after each one and the pain will fade.
“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.”
In the latent phase of labour, your 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 completely.
Once established labour has started, your contractions will become more regular and won't stop. 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 are having a home birth, the midwife will come to you.
What if my 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.
If you experience the following, your waters may have broken:
- a popping sensation followed by a gush or trickle of fluid
- an unusual amount of dampness in your underwear that doesn’t smell like urine
- uncontrollable leaking of small or large amounts of fluid from the vagina that doesn’t smell like urine.
Tell your midwife or hospital immediately if:
- the waters are smelly or coloured
- you're losing blood.
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 during labour. Your midwife may break your waters for you to speed up your labour. This is known as artificial rupture of membranes (ARM).
Once the waters have broken, your baby is at risk of infection, so contact your midwife, hospital or birth centre. They will probably ask you to come into hospital to be checked if you’re not there already. Find out more about your waters breaking.