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.

Read more about labour and birth

  • Heavily pregnant woman sat at home with soft lighting looking down at her bump with a neutral expression

    The latent phase of labour

    This part of labour can sometimes last a long time. This page explains what the latent phase of labour is and how to get through it as comfortably as possible.

  • A baby asleep in his mum's arms


    Week 41. Hello baby - my birth story

    In the diary of a third pregnancy our diarist tries to capture the pain and magic of the birth of her son.

  • A photo of a heavily pregnant woman sat on the sofa listening to music with her eyes closed

    What is hypnobirthing?

    Hypnobirthing is a method of pain management that can be used during labour and birth. It involves using a mixture of visualisation, relaxation and deep breathing techniques.

  • A new mum and dad looking down at their newborn baby

    Having a home birth

    You might like to consider giving birth at home for a more relaxed experience in familiar surroundings. Find out whether this is the right option for you.

  • Waterbirth

    How to prepare for a water birth

    Are you thinking about having a water birth? Find out about the advantages and disadvantages of giving birth in the water, what to wear and what the pain relief options are.

  • Woman with baby resting on her chest after giving birth.

    Delayed cord clamping (DCC)

    Cutting the cord immediately after the birth has been routine practice for 50-60 years but more recently research is showing that it is not good for the baby.

  • Pregnant woman holding her back.

    What to expect when your waters break

    If your waters break naturally, you may feel a slow trickle or a sudden gush of fluid that you can’t stop. Your waters may break before you go to hospital but are more likely to break during labour.

  • Pregnant woman holding her back.

    Braxton Hicks

    Braxton Hicks contractions are the body’s way of preparing for labour, but if you have them it doesn’t mean your labour has started. Here, we explain more about Braxton Hicks.

  • Pregnant woman in a yoga class

    5 positive ways to prepare for labour

    If you’re feeling a bit anxious about giving birth, there are things you can do that may help. Here’s some helpful advice from mums who’ve been there.

  • Pregnant woman sitting on exercise mat.

    Getting your baby into the best birth position

    The ideal position for your baby to be in for labour and birth is head down, their back towards the front of your stomach.

  • Pregnant woman holding her back.

    4 ways your body gets ready for labour

    At the end of your pregnancy, you may have some signs that your baby will arrive very soon, even though you may not go into labour for a little while yet.

  • Pregnant woman being checked over by doctor.

    What is a membrane sweep?

    The membrane sweep is a drug-free way of helping to bring on labour when you are going past your due date.


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

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    Last reviewed on June 5th, 2019. Next review date June 5th, 2022.

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    Please note that these comments are monitored but not answered by Tommy’s. Please call your GP or maternity unit if you have concerns about your health or your baby’s health.
    • By Charlotte (not verified) on 31 Oct 2019 - 14:19

      41weeks pregnant and can't take it anymore... Night pains which always go away after 5hrs.what to do

    • By Esther, (not verified) on 3 Oct 2019 - 14:56

      Am 40weeks pregnant. My contractions come wit pains and go. Less cramps. What should I do

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 9 Oct 2019 - 12:33

      Esther, please go to hospital for review- Tommy's Midwife

    • By Priviledge (not verified) on 25 Aug 2019 - 08:48

      The other scan sid my due date was 20 August and the second one said 28..... Few day ago i had some cramps like period pain.... Today its started again.... I had jelly like discharge with blood.... I have a running stomach and a very sharp pain like period pain.... But not a backache....and it lasted the whole night.... Now im feeling fine again im now confused if im in labour or its flase labour please help

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 28 Aug 2019 - 12:49

      Hi Priviledge
      Please go to be seen urgently at your nearest maternity unit. Take care of yourself. Tommy's Midwife

    • By Nana (not verified) on 18 Aug 2019 - 03:38

      I'm 38 weeks pregnant, I currently have been feeling too much abdominal pains, is been two nights now. I read from the top where you were explaining about Brixton Hicks, how long will they take to stop?

    • By Chloe (not verified) on 15 Aug 2019 - 14:03

      Am 38weeks pregnant...I have been feeling tightening on my lower abdomen,leg cramps,lack of appetite and vomiting for 2days now...what could it be?

    • By Wura (not verified) on 6 Aug 2019 - 03:08

      Am 40weeks pregnant and have been induce since yesterday night and ever since then have been having pain in my lower abdomen and my back and
      I could not sleep could it be sign of labour pls I need help

    • By mm (not verified) on 12 Aug 2019 - 14:22


    • By Esther (not verified) on 24 Jul 2019 - 09:41

      Am 38weeks and 4days still no sign of labour what can I do for labour to start

    • By Selena (not verified) on 16 Jul 2019 - 13:45

      Hello, tomorrow I will be 35 weeks pregnant. I am slowly loosing my mucus plug last night I had really bad back pain, normally when I wake up it’s gone but the pain is still there. Does this mean I am going into early labor?

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 17 Jul 2019 - 11:37

      Hi Selena
      please go to your local maternity unit to be reviewed by a midwife and obstetric doctor as soon as you can! Tommy's Midwife

    • By esther (not verified) on 13 Jul 2019 - 12:26

      iam 35week, iam having a back pain , abdominal pain , stomach pain, diahree,sharp pain on my Virginia, and a watering discharge,
      is it a sign of labour,

    • By Tipagya (not verified) on 5 Jul 2019 - 21:02

      Pls am 34weeks pregnant n having a whitish discharge could it be a sign of labor

    • By Mel (not verified) on 19 Jun 2019 - 22:53

      38 weeks, 1.5 cent dilated maybe 2 by now. Cramping lots. Back pains and sharp pains in my vaginal area. Baby is moving non stop though. Any ideas? I have had two prior one at 37 weeks and one at 38 weeks.

    • By Maggy (not verified) on 6 Jun 2019 - 13:36

      I am 37 weeks 5 days pregnant,I have back pain for two days and I am at 1 cm dilation.what does it mean?

    • By Helen (not verified) on 12 Jun 2019 - 17:37


      How can you tell your dilated

    • By Tiffany (not verified) on 22 Jun 2019 - 19:41

      What to do if 34weeks and having contractions

    • By Maggy (not verified) on 4 Jun 2019 - 23:36

      I am 37 weeks 3 days,I have period like back pain which is getting stronger every day,sometimes I vomit,feel tired and pressured pelvic. What does it mean?

    • By Ayanda (not verified) on 4 Jun 2019 - 09:04

      Good day I'm currently 41 weeks pregnant feeling back pain that's come and go but sometimes só heavy painful my first pregnancy

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 May 2019 - 14:22

      Hi,im 41 wks preg,i've been having back pain since this morning,this is my 3rd child,i had same pain past few days the whole night they stopped,so now the pain started 7:00am n its nw 4:00pm they still comes n stop,are this braxtonhicks or labor sign,pls help thnk u

    • By signs of labor (not verified) on 10 May 2019 - 07:44

      Make sure that you discuss your preference with your doctor during your early stages of labour. The doctor would take a call based on what is best suited for you.

    • By Rashunda (not verified) on 1 May 2019 - 05:12

      Hi I'm 35weeks and 2days..I feel lower back pain every time I stand walk or just move around. Had heavy discharge but not bloody.very uncomfortable to sleep my sides get numb.. is this a sign of preterm labor..

    • By Leanneg (not verified) on 4 Aug 2019 - 15:21

      I have the same pain.. And in my stomac x

    • By Jean (not verified) on 16 Aug 2019 - 23:50

      I have the same symptoms..I'm 35 weeks today

    • By Shehaam (not verified) on 25 Apr 2019 - 04:14

      Hi. Havin ache in the middle of my back, left side only. Constant feeling of urinating, menstrual like cramps in pelvic area. Baby very, very active. I think I've lost my plug at 35 weeks, told my midwife but have never gotten an internal exam so not sure if I'm dilated. Diahree, nausea, vomiting now and then with headaches, shortness of breath. Midwife says it's probably just my hormones but booked me to check measurements of baby saying he's been measuring big for dates. This is taking place on 29/04. Could this be reason for all symptoms mentioned? Am booked as a high risk patient as well, aged 34 with 2 kids and 3 miscarriages

    • By Mia (not verified) on 19 May 2019 - 13:21

      Nobody knows and don't no how far I am but I'm having all the signs of bith please help

    • By Laura (not verified) on 2 Apr 2019 - 13:30

      Hi I'm 37+1 weeks and for the last 2 days had period like cramps, weeing and pooing more than usual and today have been sick and feeling sick have also got a pain in my lower left hand side close to the groin first time mum is this the start of labour ?

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 24 Apr 2019 - 16:14

      Hi Laura
      You can get these symptoms at the start of labour-I would advise contacting your maternity unit for more advice as they may suggest you come to the unit for assessment

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 19 Mar 2019 - 20:48

      please help a sister
      av been 40 weeks pregnant,I do feel contractions, severe headache and body pain I urinate most often and feel like going to toilet wen d contraction dis a early sign of labor?? should I wait or go to the hospital

    • By Rachelle (not verified) on 10 Jun 2019 - 17:40

      Did you have your baby ? And how long did it take I’m having the same thing please help

    • By Chy (not verified) on 24 Aug 2019 - 17:50

      Having the same experience. Kindly tell me about yours. How did it later go?

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 14 Mar 2019 - 22:30

      Hi I'm 41 weeks 3 days woke up this morning to a cramping pain weak and I've been having Sharp pains all through I don't know if I'm in labor

    • By Tsholofelo (not verified) on 11 Mar 2019 - 22:25

      Am 39 weeks pregnant and am having cramps in my stomach more especially in the morning and I hardly don't sleep at night and my baby kicks are very painful and fat a lot and I urinate continuesly and feeling pains that are up normal in my legs does that shows the sign of labour am worried

    • By Pamela (not verified) on 8 Mar 2019 - 21:55

      Hy am 40 week's today ave been having discharge with blood for 5day an now am hvng shrp pain in my low bell especially when am sitting or walking, a can't sleep

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 11 Mar 2019 - 11:44

      Hi Pamela, I would suggest that you go and see your midwife for a check. It may help to reassure you that all is well. BW

    • By Lisa (not verified) on 8 Mar 2019 - 04:38

      I been getting ready bad pains and – Mucus Plug I don't no if to phone the midwife today because I ment to be getting induce at 6 tonight ?

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 8 Mar 2019 - 11:35

      Hi Lisa,
      I would suggest to call your midwife just to talk through what pains you are experiencing. If you are having constant pain then call your maternity unit. If they are tightenings that are coming and going, you are happy that your baby is moving well and regularly, then this is reassuring and your midwife may well recommend that you stay at home to see what happens.
      Best wishes
      Tommy's midwife

    • By LadyD (not verified) on 21 Feb 2019 - 22:29

      Am 35 weeks and 3 days pregnant and I ve been having pains when I walk, and wen I try standing up, am I high risk

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 12 Feb 2019 - 21:05

      I’m having bad pain on and off in my lower abdomen/pelvis area and getting backache, i’ve had brown, yellow and clear mucus like discharge in little bits over the past couple of days. Baby’s moving okay but is this just the baby pushing down and my body getting ready for labour? -first time mum

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 15 Feb 2019 - 15:10

      You do not say how many weeks pregnant you are, however if you are having on and off pains and a change in discharge I would suggest just to check in with your midwife to talk this through.
      Best wishes
      Tommy's midwife

    • By Lucy (not verified) on 12 Feb 2019 - 14:38

      I am 41 weeks pregnant and I saw blood yesterday and l'm feeling pains in my abdomen is it a sign of labor

    • By Chelsea (not verified) on 24 Jan 2019 - 07:10

      Hello, I’m am 39 weeks pregnant. I had my regular check up a few days ago and only 1 cm dilated but had a high cervix and couldn’t do a membrane sweep.

      I’m currently having low back pain, feels like an achy, stiff back with severe pelvic pressure and constant feeling of having to poop, with mild cramps that come and go.

      The pain isn’t unbearable, but enough to keep me awake. Could this be the start of labour ?

      Or just gas ?

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 24 Jan 2019 - 11:57

      Hi Chelsea - Thank you for your message.
      The early signs of labour are:

      A show (the mucous plug at your cervix comes away and appears as a pinky-brown jelly-like blob or in pieces.)
      You might feel pains that feel like strong period pains (these are the start of contractions)
      You might have pain in your lower back that comes in waves.
      You may find that your waters break, in which case you know that labour is, or soon will be, under way, or you might start by 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. Look out, too, for waves of backache, as some women find that this is where they feel their contractions.

      Once labour has started, your contractions will become more regular and won't go away! When you are having a contraction every five minutes (and last 30-60 seconds), call your midwife, birth centre or hospital labour ward if you are giving birth there. 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.

      If you're still not sure whether you're in labour, phone the labour ward or your midwife. They are used to dealing with false alerts so don't worry.

    • By kevin (not verified) on 10 Jan 2019 - 15:09

      my wife is expecting this month,and she is complaining of stomach every now and then,is that labour pain?.

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 10 Jan 2019 - 16:30

      Hi - Thank you for your message.
      At this stage in a pregnancy, irregular uterine tightening could be Braxton Hicks which is the name given to the action when the womb contracts and tightens with your bump becoming hard to touch; it then relaxes again, becoming soft. They usually they start in the second half of the pregnancy but can happen earlier. Many women don’t have them at all. They are often called ‘practise contractions’ but they are NOT contractions.

      Sometimes you may feel one or two tightenings in an hour or in a day, but they are usually short, lasting about 20-30 seconds each, irregular and do not continue for a long period of time. Most of the time, women find them to be painless but sometimes they can be uncomfortable.

      Why do you get Braxton Hicks?
      It is not really known why Braxton Hicks happen. They are usually explained as the body’s way of getting ready for labour, however, although they happen in the third trimester they are not a sign that labour is about to start very soon. They can be triggered by sexual intercourse, if mother or baby is very active, or if someone touches your bump. Braxton Hicks can also happen if you are dehydrated in pregnancy.

      How to tell the difference between Braxton Hicks and contractions
      Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if the tightenings are Braxton Hicks or labour is starting.
      Braxton Hicks are not usually painful, are irregular, short and do not continue as ongoing tightenings.
      Labour contractions are painful, last up to about a minute and continue, getting closer together and more intense.
      Labour contractions can also be accompanied by other signs of labour, such as waters breaking and a ‘show’.

    • By Audrey (not verified) on 10 Dec 2018 - 22:20

      Im having sharp pain in my back to my abdomen that i could nt sleep but now it is going away its painful and unbearable

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 13 Dec 2018 - 14:31

      Hi Audrey, Thank you for your comment.

      If you have having severe pain that is unbearable then we would suggest that you call your local labour ward and be seen. Please do this as soon as you can. Take Care, Tommy's Midwives x

    • By Thembi (not verified) on 6 Dec 2018 - 08:16

      35 weeks and having back pain and cramps in my stomach

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 7 Dec 2018 - 16:58

      Hi Thembi,
      If you are having ongoing cramps and back pain then I would suggest that you ring your maternity unit for a review. This would be especially urgent if you are worried about your baby's movement, or you are having any bleeding.
      Best wishes
      Tommy's midwife

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