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Is it go time?! Signs that labour is 24-48 hours away

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 Jan 22, 2024 · 10 mins read
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As an expectant mother approaches their due date, every little sensation can be cause for excitement and even a bit of anxiety. While your little one will have an expected due date, we all know that babies will typically come when they are good and ready.


So, will today be the day? Or perhaps tomorrow? Were those true labour contractions? Or Braxton Hicks contractions? Will my water break like in the movies? How will I know when it’s time to push?! Can a baby’s head REALLY fit through something so small?!

Deep breaths.

Understanding the signs that labour might be 24 to 48 hours away can help ease some of that uncertainty and prepare you for the incredible journey called childbirth. In this guide, we’ll explore these early signs and shed light on the difference between early and active labour. So, let’s get ready for the countdown to your precious baby being born!

Early vs. Active Labour


To better equip you for the birth of your little one, let’s explore in greater detail the differences between early and active labour. While both are essential phases of birth, understanding what sets them apart can help you navigate this journey more confidently.


Early Labour (First Stage)


There are three stages of labour and the first phase of the first stage is called the latent phase. This is the longest phase and can last for many hours or even days before your due date. This stage begins when the cervix softens and opens. When the cervix has opened to around 10 centimetres, the first stage is complete.

Contractions: A contraction is when the muscles of your uterus (womb) tighten and then relax. Irregular contractions during the first stage are typical and they also tend to be milder. They may feel uncomfortable – like tightening or mild menstrual cramps. These contractions help your cervix begin to efface (thin out) and dilate (open) which will come in very handy during the delivery!

Cervical Changes: Your cervix softens and becomes quite thin.

Duration: Early labour can last for a few hours or even days. It’s the longest phase of labour, and contractions may come and go. This is a good time to relax, eat, and stay hydrated.

Activity Level: You can often continue with light activities during this first stage. Walk, bounce on a birthing ball, or practice relaxation techniques as these can all be helpful.


Active Labour (Second Stage)


This is the second stage and describes the period of time from when the cervix is fully dilated to when the baby is born.

Contractions: Contractions in active labour intensify, becoming more regular and frequent – which, unfortunately, means more pain (sorry ladies!). They last longer and occur about every 3-5 minutes which means your uterus is tightening and relaxing in more rapid succession. Strong contractions can be expected during the active phase.

Cervical Changes: This is when the cervix dilates more rapidly. It’s the phase where you’ll likely head to the hospital or birthing centre. Once the cervix is fully dilated, you might be encouraged to begin to push, although some people may feel the need to push before this occurs. Your midwife or OB/GYN can coach you when it’s time to push.

Duration: Active labour is shorter in duration than the early phase typically lasting between 4 to 8 hours. However, this can vary from person to person.

Focus Required: Active labour demands your concentration and energy. Breathing techniques, relaxation, and pain management strategies become crucial. You can try to change positions – sitting, standing or walking or try a bath or shower to help you to relax and to manage the pain. Just remember, each contraction brings you closer to your baby being born and in your arms!

Third Stage


The third stage begins after your baby is born and finishes with the delivery of the placenta and membranes from your womb.

In the third stage, you may have more contractions to expel the placenta and a feeling of fullness in your vagina. The placenta is a temporary organ that develops during pregnancy. It attaches to the lining of your uterus and delivers oxygen and nutrients to your growing baby through the umbilical cord.

After you give birth, you’ll continue to have mild contractions. Your healthcare provider might give you a medication called oxytocin to continue uterine contractions and reduce postpartum bleeding. You might be asked to push one more time to facilitate the delivery of the placenta.

If your baby is born via C-section delivery, your healthcare provider will remove the placenta from your uterus during the procedure.

Signs That Labour is 24 to 48 Hours Away


Cervical Changes: One of the key indicators that labour is approaching is cervical changes. Your cervix may start to dilate and efface. Dilation refers to the opening of the cervix, while effacement is the thinning of the cervix.

Bloody Show: The “bloody show” is a mucus-like and slightly bloody discharge (not to be confused with your mucus plug which can discharge weeks before you feel a contraction). This discharge occurs as the cervix begins to soften, open, and thin out. This is a normal sign of early labour. If you notice a bloody show, it’s a good indication that things could get going soon.

Increased Pelvic Pressure: As your baby starts to descend into the birth canal, you may feel increased pelvic pressure or pressure around your vagina. This can result in a feeling of heaviness or aching. This sensation occurs because your baby’s head is engaging and putting weight on the cervix.

Regular Contractions: Contractions are a hallmark sign that the birth of your baby is getting closer, but early in the process, they tend to be less intense and more irregular than in active labour. You may experience contractions that are uncomfortable but not overly painful. These contractions often last around 30 seconds to a minute. However, over time, they may become more regular and progressively closer together, such as a few minutes apart.

Water Breaking: In some cases, your water may break during early labour. This is a natural process when the fluid-filled sac that has been surrounding your baby breaks, releasing the amniotic fluid it contains. It can be a gush of fluid or a slow, steady trickle. Amniotic fluid may be a little pinkish if it is slightly bloody, or it may be clear. When your water breaks, it’s a clear sign that labour has begun or is imminent. Your water may break on its own or it may need to be broken by your health care provider.

Nesting Instinct: Some expectant mothers experience a surge of energy and an overwhelming urge to clean and organise their surroundings while they are pregnant. This phenomenon is thought to be a psychological preparation for the arrival of your baby.

Backache and Abdominal Discomfort: As you near the end of being pregnant, you may experience backache and abdominal discomfort. This can include cramping or a persistent ache in your lower back or lower abdomen.

Increased Vaginal Discharge: Alongside the bloody show, you may notice an increase in vaginal discharge. This discharge is typically thin, mucus-like, and may be slightly bloody. It’s another sign that your cervix is softening and preparing for labour.

Digestive Changes: Some expectant mothers experience changes in their digestive system as labour approaches. You might notice diarrhoea or loose stools. This is your body’s way of clearing out the digestive tract to make more room for the baby to descend.

Flu-Like Symptoms: Some women experience flu-like symptoms in the days leading up to labour. This can include aches, chills, and a low-grade fever.

Heightened Emotional State: You might find yourself experiencing a range of emotions, from excitement and anticipation to nervousness and anxiety. This emotional rollercoaster is entirely normal!

Cervical Position: Your health care provider may check your cervical position during prenatal appointments. In the days before labour, your cervix will typically move lower and become more anterior. While this isn’t something you can easily assess on your own, your health care provider will monitor these changes.

Change in Fetal Movements: As your baby gets ready for birth, you may notice a change in their movements. Instead of sharp kicks and jabs, you might feel more rolling or wiggling sensations. This change is due to the limited space your baby has as it descends into the birth canal.

Increased Fatigue: As your body gears up for labour, you may experience heightened fatigue. This can be a combination of physical exhaustion from pregnancy and the anticipation of what’s to come.

False vs Real Labour


It’s important to distinguish between false (also known as Braxton Hicks contractions) and real labour. False contractions are common in the latter stages of pregnancy and can mimic the symptoms of the real deal. Here’s how to differentiate between the two

False Labour/Braxton Hicks Contractions:

  • Contractions are irregular and unpredictable.
  • Contractions are often painless or mildly uncomfortable.
  • Contractions do not become stronger or closer together over time.
  • Movement or changes in activity can often make false contractions subside.

Real Labour:

  • Contractions become increasingly regular and frequent.
  • Contractions are progressively more intense and painful.
  • Contractions do not stop or ease with movement or when you change positions.
  • Cervical dilation and effacement occur.

It’s essential to recognise that false labour contractions are a normal part of pregnancy, often occurring as the mother’s body prepares for childbirth. If you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing false or real labour, don’t hesitate to contact your health care provider for guidance.

Preparing: What to Do When You Notice These Signs


As you approach the exciting moment of childbirth, recognising the signs that labour is close is just the first step. Equally important is knowing what to do when you notice these signs. Here are some practical steps to help you prepare during this crucial timeframe.

Contact Your Health Care Provider: Once you notice the signs, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your healthcare provider. They can provide guidance based on your specific situation and ensure that you’re on the right track.

Timing Contractions: If you haven’t already, start timing your contractions. Use a stopwatch or a smartphone app to monitor the duration and frequency of each contraction. Your health care provider may recommend a particular pattern of contractions as a sign that it’s time to head to where you plan to give birth.

Pack Your Hospital Bag: If you haven’t already, ensure your hospital bag is ready to go. Double-check that you have all the essentials for both you and your baby. Include any comfort items that will help you feel more at ease during the birth of your baby.

Stay Hydrated and Nourished: Labour can be physically demanding, and staying hydrated and nourished is essential. Sip water and consume light, easily digestible snacks to maintain your energy levels.

Practice Relaxation Techniques: During the early stages, practice relaxation techniques you’ve learned during prenatal classes. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and visualisation can help manage pain and stress.

Arrange Transportation: If you aren’t having a home birth, ensure you have reliable transportation arranged. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan in case your chosen mode of transport becomes unavailable.

Stay Informed: Keep yourself informed about what to expect in the weeks or days before giving birth. You might want to create a birth plan, including what, if any, pain relief you may want to use during the birth process. Discuss your preferences and any concerns with your partner/support person and health care provider.

Support System: Reach out to your birthing partner or support system. Let them know that the big moment – having emotional support during the process is invaluable.

Stay Calm: Finally, try to stay as calm as possible. The waiting period can be exciting and nerve-wracking, but remember that you’re well-prepared, and your healthcare provider is there to guide you.

Keep in mind that every pregnancy is unique, and not all expectant mothers will experience these signs or even stages in the same way or at the same time. Bringing new life into the world is never a walk in the park, but if you have any concerns or questions about the signs of labour, be sure to reach out to your healthcare provider for personalised guidance and reassurance.

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