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7 early signs of 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...
Created on Sep 27, 2023 · 6 mins read
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As you’re nearing that due date and analysing every tiny moment of pain or change, you might become fixated on the early signs you’re going into labour. Your little one is about to pop out any day now, so knowing the signals is important. Some will be *painfully* obvious for many women, whereas others might be surprising early signs. If you’re scared of calling a false alarm and calling the midwife immediately, especially if it’s your first baby, these early signs of labour can help you feel a bit more prepared. But before we get into each of those signs, we’ll give you a brief outline for each of the labour stages so you can start to wrap your head around it all.  

Stages of labour

First stage


As your body starts prepping for the early stages of labour(and you get super excited to meet your new best friend) your cervix starts to thin and dilate to around 10cm. The first phase of this is the “latent” phase, which is the longest, but least painful, labour phase and can occur over days or weeks with mild contractions. Next comes the “active” phase, which is marked by strong and powerful contractions that happen between 3-8 minutes apart. Finally, there’s the “transition” phase, when your cervix dilates fully. This is the part with the most intense and frequent contractions that feel like they roll into one another. You might feel the need to go to the toilet as the baby’s head pushes down.

Second stage


The second stage of labour is the time between your fully-dilated cervix and when the baby arrives. As the contractions start to peak, you might feel the strong desire to start pushing. This is when the birth itself takes place. The second stage can last for 1-2 hours if it’s your first baby, especially with the help of an epidural. If you’ve been through this before, it’ll often been much speedier.


Third stage


Once your little one has welcomed the world, your uterus contracts to loosen and push out the placenta (this could happen anywhere from a few minutes after birth to 30 minutes). This third stage of labour is carefully supervised just to look for any complications that might come with blood loss.


Early labour – what to expect


Birth and labour looks different for all pregnant women. Whilst there are a lot of common experiences that women share, always remember that your labour might look different (and that doesn’t mean something has to be wrong). Even if you’ve had a baby before, your experience may not be the same.

Most women can expect early labour between 37 and 42 weeks of pregnancy. As contractions start to feel closer (about 5 minutes apart), this could signal that labour has started.

 

7 Signs of early labour

1. Diarrhea


Your body is loosening and relaxing to get ready to push this baby out. With this comes a release of your bowels, how fun! The last few weeks before labour you might experience more diarrhea which is definitely annoying, but a normal sign to (begrudgingly) welcome.

2. Lightening


As labour approaches, your baby will drop into your lower pelvis. You might find yourself waddling more than normal as the pressure increases on your pelvic area and bladder (more bathroom trips!) This could happen a few weeks or mere moments before labour begins, but you’ll notice the sudden space at the top of your stomach. It’s usually one of the first signs women notice.

3. Heightened moodiness


Hormones will be running like crazy when labour is approaching! If tears are pricking your eyes more frequently than you’re used to it could be a sign your baby is gearing up to exit. This sign is pretty subtle so it may go pretty unnoticed as regular pregnancy emotions, so it’s a less known about early signs of labour.

4. Harder time sleeping & fatigue


Feeling extra tired lately? You might think that’s just general pregnancy stuff but it’s actually one of the early signs of labour. The work your body is putting in can leave many women feeling uncomfortable while asleep. Restless nights can make your levels of fatigue far stronger than normal. Take some extra time to relax during the day as all your energy is about to be zapped!

5. A change in your vaginal discharge


Another appealing part of pregnancy is the mucus plug in your cervix. Mucus plug – what a lovely term! Before labour you might have a ‘bloody show’ where you discharge a plug that looks like a tampon, small drops, or a large blob. Most women see pink, brown, or red sticky discharge. Your body expels this protective layer to make room for your baby. The timing of the ‘show’ is different for every woman and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all until labour. And it definitely isn’t anything to feel embarrassed about. There’s enough things to think about in early labour without stressing about pride!

6. Your waters break


As you’ve seen in the movies, the moment waters break is the telltale sign your baby is making its way out to the birth canal. However, how this happens is actually another Hollywood misconception. Only a small portion of mamas will actually have their waters break, and most women won’t have the sudden gush as you see on the big screen (a character’s waters breaking is always so dramatic). So don’t be alarmed if this doesn’t happen. You might just notice a small trickle leading you to think it was simply a bladder leak, but if your waters break then it’s not too long until labour starts.

7. Serious and consistent contractions


You may have felt some ‘simulated contractions’ or Braxton Hicks contractions, but you’ll know when they’re no longer practice ones. That’s when early labour starts to become real labour. If you notice the tightening (and painful!) sensation becoming more frequent and intense (around 20-30 minutes apart), i.e no more mild contractions or period like cramps, it’s likely your body is preparing for labour. This is usually the strong sign most women are looking for, and as they get to 5 minutes apart you will undoubtedly be heading for the maternity unit.

Around this time you might be itching for the sign that you’re finally about to meet your new baby (or even your first baby). Then it’s just a waiting game until you smash out the three stages before labour. Keep these changes in mind and have that hospital bag ready to go (unless you have a planned home birth). Plus make sure your birth partner is all clued in on them for to make things a bit easier and for you to have as much support before birth as possible.

And soon you’ll start the first stage of labour, when your cervix begins dilating, and then it’s almost your precious baby is born!

If you are worried at any stage of these early signs, don’t hesitate to call your doctor or midwife.

 

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