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 Jodie (not verified) on 23 Jan 2020 - 07:58
I am 30 weeks pregnant and have had diarrhoea for nearly 2 weeks now I also have the worst pressure down below which courses pain if I walk more than 5 minutes I keep have the worst pains like period pains that make me go dizzy and sweat. I also have a dull back ache in my lowe back which rises to the top right hand side
Could I be in early labour or am I just panicking?
By Leanne (not verified) on 7 Jan 2020 - 21:09
Hi i am 33 weeks pregnant and for last 2 days I've been experiencing bad period type pains that have got worse. Every time baby moves i get bad shooting pains in my vagina. I am struggling to walk. Could i be in early stages of labour?
By Kat (not verified) on 19 Dec 2019 - 00:41
Hey, i will be 34 weeks Friday, i lost my mucus plug sunday on the 15th...and i have been having back pains...first it started as lower then it gradually went to my middle and upper back. Any advices?
By Midwife @Tommys on 20 Dec 2019 - 10:26
Please go to your maternity unit labour ward for urgent review. You may be at risk of premature birth. Please be seen as soon as you can! Tommy's Midwife
By Monique kirby (not verified) on 12 Dec 2019 - 20:37
I'm 18 weeks pregnant and I've been experiencing lower abdomen pain and pelvic pressure for 2 days now I contacted my ob and all I was told was to drink water take tylenol and lay down for 2 hours I did that and it didn't help what else can I do
By Kimberly (not verified) on 2 Dec 2019 - 05:16
I am 30 weeks pregnant and I've been experiencing dull low back aches and dull abdominal pains and a lot of pressure also a little throbbing and tingling in my uterus am I in labor?
By Sha (not verified) on 25 Nov 2019 - 19:46
39week 4/7days of pregnancy water fluid broken and cervixs still closed need to take out the baby within 24 hrs of water breaking.. Going to put some medication for open the oz... Treat my baby with antibiotic 20 ml already... It has been 2 days of admition.. How to open oz faster?
By andile phakathi (not verified) on 29 Jul 2019 - 22:37
I can't sleep at night have to pee now and then have stomach tightening together with lower back and lower stomach pains more clear white discharge and extreme vomiting and headache am I in labour im scheduled for c-section at 36 weeks
By Tanaya Das (not verified) on 29 Jul 2019 - 19:16
Hello I am 29 of yeras old weight 66kgs height 5'5" . I am a teaher by profession,i was pregnant for 18 weeks. I had a hectic schedule cosequetive 6 classes in my school. Later I found some water like discharge. I thought it is normal .It increased with time. Next morning i found some bleed. I went to a radiologist for USG . It showed Internal OS Open . Cervical Length less-than 2cms . Irregular heartbeat of fetus. I went to the doctor, after examining physically.He said nothing could be done and needs to be aborted. Labour was induced by injection later D&C
My question is this can Physical Stress(Standing for a longer duration,riding bike etc) cause Preterm Labour before 20 weeks ?
I was having vaginal discharge a thick white discharge before this incident .Was it a warning for a Infection ?
If my cervical length after breaking water is less than 2 cm will it effect my future pregnancy ?
What are my chances to have a full term delivery after this incident ? Without Cervical Certilage ?
By Rejoyce (not verified) on 20 Jul 2019 - 19:12
Hi i AM 34 weeks pregnant twins,was schedule for c section for ter 20th August but im getting contractions backache,sharp pains in my pelvis. My belly is tightening more than 20 minutes. Please help i dnt know what to do as the sonor gave me different due dates
By Anonymous (not verified) on 25 Jul 2019 - 15:56
Go to hospital dear,dnt worry about the sonar, i also deliverd in 34 weeks,
By Chiamaka nwaobi (not verified) on 22 Oct 2019 - 13:09
I am 32 weeks pregnant according to the oultra sound ,but I don't when I took in ,and now I am having pains in my abdomen and pains in my abdomen ,purges always and my legs sometimes get weaks and shocks me .please what can I call that?
By Miranda (not verified) on 18 Jul 2019 - 21:02
Hello I am 35 weeks today and all the sudden I been having sharp pains it feels like it's in my cervix like a stabbing pain I don't know how to explain this is my first pregnancy so I have no clue if this is normal or not I feel pressure too I have an appointment tomorrow I don't know if I should wait until tomorrow afternoon or what to do and it's been going on for about 4 hrs now. Any thoughts?
By Carrie (not verified) on 2 Jul 2019 - 20:58
I am 39 + 5 weeks and since 6pm last night (now almost 6am) I’ve been getting strong painful period like cramps every 15 mins or so that last around 5 seconds. No other signs of labour yet. Am I in the early stages of labour? I called my midwife but he was unhelpful and just told me to take Panadol and get sleep. This is my first baby so advice is greatly appreciated!
By Rachel (not verified) on 25 Jun 2019 - 00:55
Hi I am 30 weeks preg and lately I find myself not sleeping due to restless legs I am also getting a sharp pain in my hip that's so uncomfortable I also feel very agitated all he time but could be due to lack of sleep
By Jessica Nicole (not verified) on 14 Jun 2019 - 02:59
Im having mild contractions in my back as well as my stomach. Feel super nauseous also.
By Nokulunga (not verified) on 12 Jun 2019 - 19:17
Hi i'm 33 weeks 2 days i feel so much back pain an vigina too ,more discharge these pain comes and go. am i in labour?
By thandi (not verified) on 21 Nov 2019 - 07:40
hi, did you give birth? were you in labour?
By Fransheska (not verified) on 11 Jun 2019 - 02:23
Hey I am 35 weeks , and lately I have been feeling pressure down there , my back has started to hurt as well , and it feels like I have to poo ,also my feet are swelling and I haven't been moving as much to avoid them from doing so it has even gotten hard to walk with all this pain ? Could it be early labor
By Joan C (not verified) on 31 May 2019 - 22:36
Hi, I'm 34 weeks and 4 days pregnant and I was wondering if I'm in early labor, I have right side back pain, diarrhea and I'm not sure if it's contractions or gas pain since I've been gassy when I entered 34 weeks of pregnancy. The back pain is very uncomfortable to the point where I can't fall asleep even tho I'm switching and laying on my sides, I also have pelvic pain while walking and sitting. I have no pinkish discharge, but my discharge increased a little.
Thank you for your answer.
By Zarifa (not verified) on 14 May 2019 - 22:50
Am 38 weeks pregnant and am feeling pain at my back and abdominal. The to continue but those not last longer
By Tyra (not verified) on 11 May 2019 - 09:35
Hi I am 34weeks twins pregnancy,I feel cramps,it hard to change position in bed,it hard to walk and hard to seat. But my babies moving normal. Does it means early labour sighns
By 36+7 (not verified) on 9 May 2019 - 00:40
Past few days my stomach has tightened up so much it’s hard to stand up straight and pain on my cervix comes and goes with it. Sometimes it’s so bad I want to cry but only lasts a minute. I’ve been having diarrhea on and off and have been more exhausted then I’ve ever been my entire pregnancy. I’m out of state due to a family emergency so I’m away from my doctors and husband. Could this be early labor even though it’s been happening the past three days?
By Jayden (not verified) on 29 Apr 2019 - 11:53
Hi , I’m 30 weeks pregnant on the Friday I woke up to intense back pain and abdominal pain went to the toilet and nothing happened , went to sleep and woke up an hour later to the same pains Exocet this time it was Diarrhea. Saturday I had cramping on and off . Sunday , abdominal pain and Diarrhea and back pain . Monday Diarrhea twice and abdominal pain again . Pain only lasts roughly a minute and happen around 3 times a day . Do I have a bug or am I’m in early labour ?
By Paige Stacy (not verified) on 23 Apr 2019 - 21:45
I'm 35 weeks today I'm having lots of pain in my lower back my belly is so tight an cramping I feel lots of pressure cant breathe good what's going on with me this is my 4th baby
By Dimakatso (not verified) on 21 Apr 2019 - 12:43
28 weeks pregnant and having a back pain
By Brittany (not verified) on 1 Apr 2019 - 23:24
For the past few days ive felt alot of pressure in my abdomen and lower back. I have no other symptoms just feel like complete poo. Its comes and goes in waves but not consistent. Should this be something of concern ?
By Midwife @Tommys on 24 Apr 2019 - 12:26
I hope by now you have contacted your maternity unit to have your symptoms checked out and that everything is ok.
Any unusual pain or pressure sensation that is either constant or coming in waves should be assessed as soon as possible. All maternity units should have an emergency number you can contact for advice-this is usually the labour ward or a maternity triage unit.
By Anne (not verified) on 25 Mar 2019 - 00:10
First baby I'm suffering with severe leg pains aswell as pregnancy insomnia...I vomited..have a pushing yet constipated feeling...I've been dropping clear water from my vagina.... and a pressing feeling inside my lower tummy please give me some advice thanks
By Makoma Gloria (not verified) on 22 Mar 2019 - 15:42
Is it a sign of labour
By Esme (not verified) on 20 Mar 2019 - 12:16
Im currently 31 weeks pregnant been having pelvic pressure for the past few days to the point where i can no longer be standing up at moments or even walk with out help ...last night was unable to sleep because of the pressure and stomach tightness and back pain then i started getting nauseous and ended up vomiting. Soon after i got horrible abdominal cramps that gave me the urge to use the restroom but while on toilet nothing HELP!! This is my 2nd baby never gt nothing like this with my 1st.
By Sharly (not verified) on 15 Mar 2019 - 03:22
I am 18 weeks pregnant close to 19, I was feeling braxton hicks and pelvic pains and tummy pains and back pains around 40 mins ago now. I wad laying down and I figured id get up to see if anything changed I walked around and it feels like I just finished doing a work out.
By Tietiana (not verified) on 11 Mar 2019 - 07:15
I was told I could be induced or wait it out 12 more days to recieve the steroid shot for her lungs.
By Paige (not verified) on 4 Mar 2019 - 11:13
Hi I am 36 weeks pregnant. I am experiencing dull cramps and cervix pain. I’m also experiencing diarrhoea too. I generally feel unwell and unable to sleep as I can’t get comfy. Is this a early sign of labour?
By Midwife @Tommys on 4 Mar 2019 - 16:23
Hi Paige, Yes this may be a sign of labour but as you are not yet 37 weeks I would advise that you go to your maternity unit to be checked.
By Chelsea (not verified) on 22 Feb 2019 - 20:30
I am 34 weeks tomorrow and for the past 2/3 days I have had cramps in my lower part of the stomach. Today I’ve had back pain, groin pain and pelvic pain which has been quite painful whenever I stand up. I’ve not been sleeping for days due to baby being extremely active. He just won’t rest and is always kicking and moving. I’ve had tight feelings in my stomach and then some kind of release: I have woken up today feeling sick and a tight chest Even after I have tried to eat something. Is this normal. First baby also.
By Midwife @Tommys on 25 Feb 2019 - 15:53
Hi Chelsea, It is always worth calling your maternity unit when you have these symptoms. While it may be normal, any abdominal pain at 34 weeks should be assessed. It is our job as midwives to be alert to any possible complications but also to reassure you if all is well. Please don't worry about asking. #Alwaysask
By Anie (not verified) on 21 Feb 2019 - 10:59
Hi my water broke on Tuesday at the doctor said it's not all broken the is some little that I have ever sinse Tuesday I have a pain in my back that come and go and I fell the pain I'm my vigina they said must come on Tuesday to che
By Midwife @Tommys on 22 Feb 2019 - 13:20
If you continue to have pains that are coming and going, then I would suggest for you to contact your doctor for a review. Additionally, if you feel unwell, feverish or your waters change colour from clear then it is important that you are reviewed. Do also keep an eye on baby's movements, any changes then to contact the hospital.
By Ana (not verified) on 16 Feb 2019 - 23:23
I'm having really painful pelvic pain in only 34 weeks
By Midwife @Tommys on 20 Feb 2019 - 15:30
Hi Ana - please go into your local maternity unit for review by a midwife and doctor as soon as you can. Take care, Tommy's Midwife
By Natasia (not verified) on 16 Feb 2019 - 22:24
Good day. I'm 34 weeks and 4 days pregnant. Got up this morning with flu/cold like symptoms. Through out the day it just got worst. Now I'm having a fever and low back pains, and rough pelvic pain. My feet and ankles are severely swollen. Baby is kicking regularly and seems happy. Should I call my dr?
By Midwife @Tommys on 20 Feb 2019 - 15:28
If you have not already been into hospital to see a midwife/doctor since you sent this message, please do so urgently. They will need to review you to rule out infection and pre-eclampsia. Take care, Tommy's Midwife
By Micka (not verified) on 18 Jan 2019 - 00:26
Hi, for the last few days I have been feeling light menatrual like pains on and off. I have had them for a few weeks now, but they seem to be getting more frequent. They don’t have any pattern to them, and come on randomly a few times a day. I was checked last week and my cervix was completely closed and firm. Should I be concerned?
By Midwife @Tommys on 18 Jan 2019 - 15:00
It sounds like it is something to just keep an eye on, but not something to worry about at the moment. If you start to having some regular tightenings that are in a pattern and/or you have any bleeding or noticed any reduction in your baby's movements then do ring the maternity unit for a review.
By Jamie.jackson (not verified) on 15 Jun 2019 - 17:04
Sounds fine and normal but check with the ER anyway
By Ashley minard (not verified) on 17 Jan 2019 - 11:55
I am 36 and 1 day pregnant...I have had diarrhea for the last two days and last night /this morning I am having contractions (not really sure how to time them)nausea,diarrhea and vomiting...am I in labor
By Midwife @Tommys on 17 Jan 2019 - 12:50
Hi - Thank you for your message.
If you are having painful contractions at 36+1, it is important you are seen at your maternity unit and assessed urgently.
By Carley Neale (not verified) on 3 Jan 2019 - 13:08
Hi I am 23 weeks pregnant with my first baby I am having loads of back pains and I feel very unwell should I contact my midwife
By Midwife @Tommys on 9 Jan 2019 - 16:02
If you have not already been since you sent this message, please do urgently go to your maternity unit for review by midwife and doctor. All the best, Tommy's Midwife