How will I know when I’m actually in labour?

Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling, a midwife for over 25 years, is the Director of Midwifery Studies at UTS. She believes research, innovation and good quality midwifery are pivotal to the well-being of mothers and young families. Christine has extensive experience in antenatal education, policy development and research, and has published on workforce issues, homebirth, vaginal birth...
Updated on Jun 14, 2024 · 4 mins read

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When you reach those final weeks of labour, after all those months of waiting, you feel like surely this baby is going to come any minute – surely I can’t get any bigger? You start to analyse every kick, movementcramp and surge of back pain, trying to figure out if it’s go-time, or simply just more Braxton Hicks or just regular old pregnancy woes… Well, it can be hard to tell the difference if you don’t know what you’re in for… Other mums will tell you, ‘when it happens you’ll just know’, but here are a few tell-tale signs to help you determine if its labour or just still practice…

1. Waters break


While not everyone will experience the Hollywood-style gush of water, it might be more of a slow leak, but when your waters break, that’s a pretty good sign that you’ll be meeting your baby very soon.

2. Contractions


Contractions are also a good sign that labour is near, but they can also be deceptive because they can sometimes start weeks before any real action begins. If they are uncomfortable rather than painful, irregular and don’t last too long, if they stop when you change positions or move around, then it’s likely pre-labour. But once they ramp up in intensity, frequency and don’t ease up when you move, then chances are it’s the real deal.

Once they start to form a pattern and are coming five minutes apart, then it’s time to call the hospital or birthing centre.


3. Losing your mucus plug/bloody show


Not all women will notice this, and even if you do it’s not necessarily a sign of labour. Once you lose it, however, be on the alert – it can be anywhere from minutes to days to a couple of weeks before labour starts.


4. Back pain


Pain in the lower back increases as labour approaches – and even more during labour. Sudden onset or dramatic increase of back pain is a pretty good sign things are happening. Some women also experience contractions in their back, sometimes referred to as “back labour” which is often caused by the baby’s head pushing against your spine.

5. Baby “drops” and lightening


Again not all women will notice this change, but many notice a point when the baby “drops”. This is when the baby’s head burrows deep into your pelvis, preparing for birth and many women will find this makes them suddenly feel lighter like they can breathe easily again as the baby is no longer pressing on the diaphragm. The only problem is now baby is putting more pressure on your pelvis and bladder – meaning the waddle might kick in (if it hasn’t already!) and even more frequent trips to the bathroom.

6. Diarrhoea


As labour approaches and your hormones are working overtime to prepare your body – and relax the joints and ligaments to get the baby down the birth canal – they can also relax other areas, including your bowels. So in the days before labour, you may notice you have diarrhoea and are going to the toilet more frequently. This is very common and nothing to worry about but make sure you keep up the fluids.

7. Increased Braxton Hicks and cramping


As your uterus readies itself for the big day, you will notice more and more cramping and Braxton Hicks as it prepares to get that baby out.

8. Nesting/Surge of energy – or the opposite


Many women say they have a surge of energy right before going into labour and either found themselves suddenly cleaning out the kitchen cupboards at all hours of the morning – or finishing the baby room! While others report a drastic drop in energy, suddenly finding themselves unable to drag themselves out of bed or off the couch right before labour kicked off. Make sure you get plenty of rest, even if you’re feeling great don’t overdo it – you need to preserve all your energy.

When to call the hospital?


Knowing when it’s time can be hard, and confusing – so don’t be afraid to give them a call and tell them how you’re feeling if you think something might be happening.

They will likely tell you to stay at home until contractions are 5 minutes apart, pending no other complications. However, if you are experiencing any of the following then you should call your doctor straight away:

  • You start bleeding – if it is bright red, not just pink or brown.
  • Your waters break – and especially if they are brown or green
  • You have suddenly started swelling, have a severe headache, dizziness or vision problems.

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