Early labour means going into labour before 37 weeks. After this point your pregnancy is classed as full term.
If you go into labour earlier than you had expected, you'll have to think on your feet. Do not panic however, only 2 in 10 cases of suspected premature labour actually result in the baby being born. In the other 8 in 10, the symptoms turn out to be something else, or the contractions simply stop of their own accord and the baby is delivered later in the pregnancy, or at full term.
If you're in any doubt, phone the hospital or midwife straight away for advice. If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant they will usually tell you to go straight to hospital, and they may send an ambulance for you.
What are the signs of premature labour?
If you have any of the following symptoms, phone the hospital or midwife straight away, as you could be in labour:
- either a slow trickle or a gush of clear or pinkish fluid from your vagina or any increase in vaginal discharge
- cramps like strong period pains
- a frequent need to urinate
- a feeling of pressure in your pelvis
- nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.
Don't delay if you have strong pain, a smelly discharge or bleeding from your vagina, or if you are feeling feverish, sick or have a temperature, call immediately as you may need urgent medical attention.
What happens when you are showing signs of labour?
You may have some of the symptoms but not others. For example, your waters may have broken but with no contractions, or vice versa. Contractions don't always indicate that you're in labour, so the healthcare team will carry out checks to find out.
Many women experience Braxton Hicks, sometimes known as practice contractions. These can become quite strong and painful during the third trimester, and it's easy to mistake them for the real thing.
The healthcare team will check
- whether you are actually in labour
- if labour hasn't started, whether your symptoms are due to some other cause that needs treating
- if you are definitely in labour, whether this has been caused by something (such as an infection) that needs treating, and how far the labour is progressing, so they can line up the facilities you need, either to delay the birth or to deliver the baby.
If your waters have broken early (Preterm premature rupture of the membranes - PPROM)
It is possible for your waters to break without any contractions. Where this happens early, it is known as preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PPROM).
How will I know if my waters have broken?
You will notice either a gush or a slow trickle of watery fluid, which is often pinkish or clear in colour.
The healthcare team will examine you. If you are not having contractions, and if you and the baby are otherwise healthy, they may treat you with antibiotics to prevent infection and help you continue the pregnancy for as long as possible.
You may also have the following tests:
- Blood tests. These check for high levels of white blood cells (which can indicate that you're fighting off an infection) and haemoglobin levels (which could indicate haemorrhage), along with other tests for inflammation.
- Urine samples. These enable the healthcare team to check for urinary tract infections and conditions such as pre-eclampsia.
- Your baby's heart rate. This will be monitored regularly. If it is unusually fast, this may be a sign of chorioamnionitis, which can be life-threatening to you and the baby. In this case, your baby may need to be delivered as soon as possible, often by caesarean.
If your waters haven't broken
The healthcare team will examine you to see if they can feel the contractions. This will include an internal examination to check whether the cervix is changing. If they think you are having contractions, you may then have a fetal fibronectin test to see if your body is preparing to give birth and an ultrasound scan to check the length and shape of your cervix. Fibronectin is a substance found in the amniotic fluid and vaginal secretions. It is only present in the vaginas of women up to 20 weeks or over 35 weeks pregnant, or whose bodies are getting ready to give birth.
These can be good predictors that labour is imminent. The team will probably also do some blood and urine tests. If you have symptoms of infection, or are considered high risk, they may also take swabs for infections such as bacterial vaginosis and group B streptococcus.
Tests for your baby
As well as carrying out various tests on you, the healthcare team will need to assess how your baby is doing. They will check his heartbeat and may also:
- run a scan to check his weight
- carry out electronic fetal monitoting to check his heart rate
- perform a scan to check that the placenta is functioning normally.
In labour or not... what happens next
Even if it is a false alarm, the team may want to keep you in hospital to monitor you and your baby.
If you are in labour and less than 35 weeks pregnant, they may try to stop the contractions, or to slow down the birth enough to give you injections of steroids to help your baby breathe when he is born. Find out more here about what happens if you are definitely in labour.
If you are 35 weeks or over, the team will usually let the birth go ahead.
Removing a stitch (cerclage) if you have one
If you have had a cervical stitch (cerclage), you will need to have it removed before your baby is born, as there is a risk of it tearing if it is still in place while you are having contractions. If you don't go into labour early, the stitches will usually be removed at between 36 and 40 weeks.
Frequently asked questions about premature labour and birth
Moving you both to a specialist neonatal unit may be the safest option if your baby is likely to be born very prematurely. This is known as 'in utero transfer' as they are effectively making sure your baby is in the best place for her care while she is still in your womb.
Giving birth is one of the most life-changing experiences you'll ever have, but it doesn't always go as planned, especially when your baby is premature.
- BAPM (2008) Management of acute in-utero transfers: a framework for practice. London, British Association of Perinatal Medicine
- Giraldo-Isaza MA BV (2011) Cervical cerclage and preterm PPROM, Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol 54, No 2, p313-20
ℹLast reviewed on July 1st, 2017. Next review date July 1st, 2020.
By Kerry (not verified) on 17 Oct 2018 - 20:15
I am 33 weeks and 6 days, I’ve had belly tightening all day which has now calmed down but now I’ve got lower back ache. I also vomited this morning which I haven’t done in months. When I went to my doctors appointment yesterday they took a urine sample and said it looks like I have white blood cells but they were going to test it and let me know by Friday the results. Could this be early labour or the symptoms could just be from a Urine infection? My next midwife appointment is Friday. I don’t know if I should leave it until midwifes appointment this Friday or check sooner?
By Midwife @Tommys on 22 Oct 2018 - 15:59
I expect that you have already got your answer. Sorry we are not able to answer these messages urgently. If you are still concerned, please speak to your midwife.
By Tanya (not verified) on 9 Oct 2018 - 21:53
Hi I am 20 weeks into my pregnancy I had severe back & tummy pains went to the local materinety the doctor check me out said I had a high white blood count they taught I maybe in early labour they gave me a scan & internal & sent me home with antibiotics paracetamol & buscopan & an hour or two later the doctor rang & asked would I come in tomorrow morning she wants to check & scan my cervix what would be the reason for this please & thank you
By Midwife @Tommys on 11 Oct 2018 - 11:45
Hi Tanya, Thank you for your comment.
The Dr may want to check to see if your cervix is shortening at all due to the pains that you have been having. This could be one of the reasons but it may be more advisable to call your maternity unit directly, so that they will be able to give you a more accurate answer to your question. Take Care, Tommy's Midwives x
By Anonymous (not verified) on 30 Sep 2018 - 16:30
I am 36 weeks and 1 day. My OB told me last check-up (Tuesday) that my cervix is already open. I have a pelvic pressure. My stomach tigthens sometime and have a mild lower back pain. When could be my labor starts?
By Midwife @Tommys on 1 Oct 2018 - 15:42
Hi, Your labour could start at any time. Sometimes, women having their first baby can take a long while to get into labour. The contractions seem to come and go, start and stop. Once your contractions become regular and five minutes apart you should call your midwife or doctor.
By Susan (not verified) on 18 Sep 2018 - 01:43
Hi im 32 weeks today. Since Saturday having tightness in my belly but today at about 5pm its really bad. Lower back pain as well and pressure thinking i need to pee.
By Midwife @Tommys on 20 Sep 2018 - 13:51
Hi Susan, Thank you for your comment.
If you haven't already been to your local maternity hospital because of these pains then we would recommend that you call your labour ward and be seen. Having pain that is really bad could be a sign of early labour so please call the labour ward to be seen. It could be that you have a urine infection that is causing the pain but it is best to be checked over and reassured. Hope this helps, take care, Tommy's Midwives x
By Joanne Goodman (not verified) on 8 Sep 2018 - 16:42
31 weeks pregnant feeling really agitated sick cant eàt feeling full and cant be bothered talking to anyone baby no5
By Midwife @Tommys on 12 Sep 2018 - 10:29
If you are feeling unwell or concerned about the baby please contact your maternity unit as soon as possible for urgent advice regarding your symptoms and the way you are feeling. Do you have support at home or a health professional such as your GP or midwife that you can talk to about your feelings of agitation and not wanting to talk to anyone?
Please contact us via Tommy's Pregnancy Line 0800 0147 800 or email [email protected]
By Meg (not verified) on 1 Sep 2018 - 13:25
This is my 2nd pregnancy but its the polar opposite of my first so im having trouble telling whats normal and whats not.. Im currently experiencing lower back pain.. Ive had diarrhea for the last 2 days.. Period like cramping.. A LOT of pressure in my pelvic and vaginal area as well as when i urinate which has become a lot more frequent.. Is this normal or should i go see my doctor??
By Midwife @Tommys on 7 Sep 2018 - 15:04
If you haven't already it sounds like it would be best to speak with your doctor for a review.
By Lorraine (not verified) on 31 Aug 2018 - 15:57
I am 31 weeks and 3days I’ve been havin pains in my stomach all day I had pains in my right side last night and couldn’t sleep due to it and every time I feel baby kick it gets worse, I’ve also started gettin pain in my lower back? My stomach also seems to be tender to touch which seems to come and go I don’t want to keep pestering the midwife but I never had any of this with my 1st child?
By Midwife @Tommys on 31 Aug 2018 - 16:17
If you are having on going pains then we would advise for you to contact your midwife or maternity unit just to have a review to make sure everything is ok. Please do not worry about 'pestering' at all.
By Zoe (not verified) on 27 Aug 2018 - 19:14
Hi there, I am 40+6 and for the last 3 days have been loosing my plug and had really bad diarreah, the diarreah has passed now thank god but I keep getting period type pains, lower back pain and feel like I constantly need to pee but they don't seem painful enough to be contractions and there isn't any rhythm to them, my last midwife app at 40 weeks they said baby was fully engaged and head down but back to back, am I in early labour? And if so how long is this going to take until it ramps up to real labour, getting fed up now and wanting to stick with my home birth plan! Thanks x
By Midwife @Tommys on 29 Aug 2018 - 16:21
Yes, it does sound as if you are in early labour. It would be a good idea to call your hospitals labour ward/ birth centre to discuss your symptoms and ask them if they advise that you are assessed soon. Good luck - perhaps you have already given birth to your baby by now! Tommy's Midwife
By Saniatta (not verified) on 23 Aug 2018 - 06:30
Tonight I have been having back pain, hip pain, and my vagina feels heavy when I stand. I have had diarrhea a few days ago for 2 days.. I’ve been sleeping a lot due to being super exhausted as well. My pains started happening at 9pm til now (12:30am) and still on going..
By Midwife @Tommys on 23 Aug 2018 - 14:05
Hi Saniatta, Thank you for your comment.
If you are having abdominal pain then we would recommend that you call your local maternity unit so that you can be checked over, they will be able to give you advice over the phone and if they think that you may be in labour then they will ask you to come in. Hope this helps, Take care, Tommy's Midwives x
By Stacey (not verified) on 21 Aug 2018 - 09:44
I’m 32 weeks 6 days pregnant with my 3rd baby. I started with backache last night which has gotten worse. This morning I woke up with lower abdominal pain that radiates round the sides and back. I have tried going to the toilet, moving about and lying in my side. None of these things help. Baby is moving normally and when he does move it hurts. Any advice is much appreciated thank you
By Midwife @Tommys on 22 Aug 2018 - 11:19
You need to go to your Maternity Unit as soon as possible to be reviewed with your pregnancy notes.
Abdo pain at any gestation before 37 weeks is not normal and needs investigation. You may have something as simple as a UTI which may need antibiotic treatment, but it is best to rule out more serious problems too.
All the best
By Cimeron Worrell (not verified) on 17 Aug 2018 - 17:15
I’ve had really bad pains in my stomach not just lower. My back has been killing me. I can’t eat bc the acid reflex is so bad, but I’m not even hungry. I have been really nauseous and had diarrhea for a few days now. Everyone just keeps saying your fine it’s normal but is it? I’m a ftm and I don’t want to call doctors and waste there time.
By Midwife @Tommys on 20 Aug 2018 - 14:38
Hi Cimeron, Most doctors or midwives would prefer to have their time wasted 100 times than to miss 1 problem. If you have abdominal pain at 35 weeks please go to your labour ward for assessment and advice. I can't give advice and reassurance without examining you. Take care, Tommy's midwives
By Carrie (not verified) on 6 Aug 2018 - 23:03
Hi. I'm 32 first pregnancy, I have gestational diabetes. Experiencing pain & pressure around my vigana along w severe hip pain, & side of my belly/ligaments I assume. I feel pressure while I urinate & now have diarrhea along w shortness of breath. I was told 3 or 4 weeks ago the baby had already turned down. Any advice is appreciated, thank you, just worried. The babies movement have still been normal, no discharge I can tell but 2 times today I've felt like I was leaking.
By Midwife @Tommys on 7 Aug 2018 - 16:54
As you are experiencing symptoms such as pain, diarrhoea, shortness of breath, think that you might be leaking fluid and also have a pregnancy complicated by diabetes, I would advise you to contact your maternity unit as soon as possible for urgent advice-you may be asked to go the unit for further assessment
By Carrie (not verified) on 12 Aug 2018 - 02:35
Thank you for your respond. I went in to be checked out at the birthing center where I live, I had been having contractions & had a UTI. Everything is good with the baby, I was given medication for the infection & 2 bags of fluids... still having contraction & now back pain, I will most likely deliver early, Thanks again.
By Anon (not verified) on 2 Aug 2018 - 22:34
I'm 32 +4 today. Was admitted for monitoring 2 nights ago due to slowly leaking fluid and cramping. 3mins apart for cpl hours. Was told not suspected labour as cervix still long/ closed.
Tonight I've been having cramping again 3mins apart. Headache. Feel sick. Back pain. Pain in inner thighs. Peeing loads. Big painful movements from baby. Sometimes to left. The right. Even middle. Lots pres sure in vagina inc stabbing pains.
I've rested all afternoon. Currently laid on bed.
I just don't feel 'right'.
Could this be early labour???
By Midwife @Tommys on 3 Aug 2018 - 15:08
Sorry this is a urgent service, I am not sure how you are at the moment, however if you don't 'feel right' and are getting regular cramps that aren't stopping then I would advise for you to call the maternity unit for another review.
By Stacey (not verified) on 21 Jul 2018 - 18:14
Since the last week very bad lower back pain I'm 26+2days
By Midwife @Tommys on 23 Jul 2018 - 16:43
Stacey. As you have read from this page there can be many reasons for lower back pain at 26 weeks. Please see your GP or midwife to exclude anything serious. If all is well with your pregnancy you may need to see a physiotherapist or osteopath to help you to move around better. Please take care x
By Abiola (not verified) on 17 Jul 2018 - 11:29
I am pregnant woman of 17month,am a mother of two,have been feeling like my baby want to fall out whenever am urinating and am pee light red fluid.Pls what should I do.
By Midwife @Tommys on 18 Jul 2018 - 10:15
You need to go to hospital to be reviewed as soon as possible. It sounds like either you have a very bad urine infection (passing blood stained urine) or your waters may have broken prematurely. Both need to reviewed by a midwife and doctor at the hospital urgently. Please get seen as soon as possible.
All the best
By Tamyra (not verified) on 15 Jul 2018 - 01:22
I'm 36 weeks pregnant baby #3. I have been having strong contractions that take my breath away. They come every 5 minutes and last 30-40 seconds. This continues for 2 hours every evening for the last 3 days. During the day I'll have several strong contractions but they are sporadic. With all of these contractions I can feel the baby's head squishing down hard on my cervix. It is exausting me. I also have a constant feeling of fullness and pressure in my pelvis and everytime I stand up I have to urinate. Also when I strain on the toilet or during a contraction it feels like the baby bulges out of me. Oh and constant achey lower back. Is this prelabor? Will I be going into labor soon?
By Midwife @Tommys on 18 Jul 2018 - 09:32
It could be that you are in the latent (early phase) of labour. But i would go and be checked over at your local maternity unit asap if you haven't already done so- because it is baby number 3, it could come incredibly quickly once regular contractions come and then stay. It is possible that your cervix is already partially dilated with such strong contractions which is common in 3rd time mums.
I also want the midwife to check your urine, the heaviness you are feeling could be a uti and you may need antibiotics for that as a UTI can also cause uterine irritation and for you to go into early labour (since you are 36 weeks you are not quite "term"
So please take good care of yourself
Sophie, Tommy's Midwife
By Mutane (not verified) on 10 Jul 2018 - 11:22
Hi, i am 30+5days gone.. Had period like cramps 28/6/18 that made me unable to walk, sits or lie...ws admitted fr 2days, candida ws seen in my urine though scanning showed baby is fine. Ws given antibiotics n pcm which i took the last tab on 8/7/18. Couldnt sleep last night because of pains i have each time baby moves... I feel pains like something wants to com out through my V. The pressure down there is so tight n the pain intense especially at my left hip bone region. I am feeling tired n sleepy but cant lie for long...when i appy pressure to my anus n V, i dont feel the pain but only the babys movement: when i press my upper belly against the cushion foam, the pelvic pains is severe. Its my second baby after 7 long awaiting years. No show, water or blood, no diarrhoa or vommiting.
Any advise is welcomed. Tx in anticipation
By Midwife @Tommys on 12 Jul 2018 - 13:36
Sorry to hear that you are in so much pain. It is reassuring that you are not experiencing any bleeding, or vaginal loss. It is important that you are also monitoring your baby's movements closely, any concerns you must see someone straight away. If you are still having a lot of pains then it is important to be reviewed again to make sure the antibiotics have been effective and there is nothing else going on.
By Lyndsay (not verified) on 7 Jul 2018 - 23:52
I am experiencing really bad pelvic pains and have been told at last appointment baby is head down. Sometimes I can hardly walk pains are so bad baby is moving normally. This is my first baby. Is this normal or should I get checked out? Thanks
By Midwife @Tommys on 9 Jul 2018 - 16:15
It is always sensible to ask advice from your midwife. If it is nothing serious you may be referred to the physiotherapy team for some pelvic support and exercises. This can really help to make you comfortable and stop it from getting any worse. Don't be afraid to ask. Midwives are there to help you. Take good care of yourself.
By Sophia (not verified) on 7 Jul 2018 - 16:49
Hi am 35 weeks, and having small small back and abdomen pains, always peeing and can go to toilet also
By Midwife @Tommys on 9 Jul 2018 - 16:09
It would be sensible to call your maternity unit and arrange to be seen. Any abdominal pain at 35 weeks should be assessed. Please don't worry that it is a waste of anyone's time. If all is well you will be reassured and can go home. Take care
By Shana (not verified) on 23 Jun 2018 - 13:52
Hi im 31 weeks 4 days went to hospital 4 days ago after almost colliding with another car turned out I was dilated to 2 then closed uo the 2 days ago dilated to 1 and last night had period like cramps and back pain and strong braxton hicks all night I couldn't sleep I pee alot and keep getting constipated or diarrhea.
By Midwife @Tommys on 25 Jun 2018 - 15:03
Hi Shana, I hope you are not too shaken up by the near collision in your car. Please make sure you are aware of your baby's movements and remember that you can go in to hospital for advice at any time if you are worried. .
By Yenmi (not verified) on 21 Jun 2018 - 20:35
Hi I'm 37 weeks and 4 days and I went to the hospital and was having contracions every 2 to 3 minutes and was 3 dialated so they stoped my contractions and gave me 2 shots for bby lungs was there for 3 days and they send me home with a very high sugar of 200 doctor say is cuz of the shots I got but I have never had sugar in my pregnancy so this mo tmi g i woke up and don't feel my bby moved at all I checke my sugar and is 176 my heart is betting So hard and im itchi all over my body don't know what to do in scared going back to the hospital and then send me bk can some one tell me please
By Midwife @Tommys on 22 Jun 2018 - 15:22
I am sorry to hear that you are feeling scared and not very well. I understand that you are worried about going back to hospital but if your heart is beating so fast and hard and you are itching all over then it is important that you are reviewed by a doctor.
By Danielle (not verified) on 21 Jun 2018 - 14:56
Hi so for a couple of weeks I have really bad pressure this week I have lost lots of green snotty discharge last night at 11:30 dull ace in back coming and going at about 8 this morning they stopped and it's coming and going every so often no blood or nothing in discharge, now feeling cramps in the front of belly
By Midwife @Tommys on 22 Jun 2018 - 15:20
If you lost a lot of green discharge then I would advise for you to contact your maternity unit to be review. It is good that you are not having any bleeding and the aches have calmed down but the discharge would still be a good reason to go be checked out.
By Laura (not verified) on 16 Jun 2018 - 09:37
For the last few days I have been having cramping like period pains, terrible inner hip pains, back pain over my hips and diarrhoea. Baby is still moving as per normal, but get weird tightenings over bump too. Is this the start? As had previous c section so never laboured naturally?
By Midwife @Tommys on 18 Jun 2018 - 15:03
Yes it is possible that your body is getting ready for labour. We call the tightenings Braxton hicks and this is nothing to worry about, however, if they become painful and/or regular you should contact your maternity unit for assessment as you are still a little early for delivery.
By kerry (not verified) on 16 Jun 2018 - 06:14
hi i am 28weeks preg had cerclarge put in at 24 weeks today had loose bowls keep going to toilet haveing lower back pain and on right side of tummy around back i am getting sharp pains getting shorter and more pain ful
By Midwife @Tommys on 18 Jun 2018 - 14:50
Please call your maternity unit for advice. We always advise that women are seen and assessed if they have abdominal pain in pregnancy.
By Kaay ramzan (not verified) on 12 Jun 2018 - 12:53
So I will be 34 weeks tomorrow but today in the morning when I woke up I had a blob of green snot like discharge and after that I have been getting period like cramps not painful just like before a period is due I have had this 4/5 times so far since 9.30 this morning I feel a bit nauseas I can still feel him moving and I can feel a bit of pressure on my bladder