8 Early Signs of Labour
The onset of labour varies greatly from woman to woman. Some do not reach their due date, others go past it; some experience early signs that labour is imminent, while others have no sign at all.
Anthea Savage outlines some classic signs to look out for, so you can have some idea of what to expect.
1. Increased vaginal discharge
Vaginal discharge is made up of secretions from the cervix, old cells from the walls, and normal bacterial flora. Pregnancy discharge is typically white or off-white in colour, and can increase in volume nearer your due date. This differs from a “show”, which can be pink in colour. Discolouration (green/yellow) or an odour could indicate an infection. It is best to check with your midwife about any unusual discharge, as a clear watery discharge could also be a sign that amniotic fluid is leaking.
2. A “show”
The plug of mucus sealing the cervix can come away any time up to 12 days before labour. It will appear like a jelly blob and be streaked with blood – giving a pinkish appearance. It may come away in one piece or in several pieces. If you experience more blood than this, call your midwife immediately.
3. Feeling unusually energetic
This sensation is often referred to as “nesting” and describes a sudden urge to start cleaning or decorating the house. Make sure you also get plenty of rest, as you will need a good energy reserve for labour.
4. General unwellness
Some women complain of backache or a heavy feeling just before labour starts. Others experience vomiting or nausea, diarrhoea and an urge to pass urine (caused by the baby’s head pressing on your bowel).
5. Braxton Hicks
These are irregular “practice” contractions of the uterus, which are generally painless and can be experienced throughout pregnancy, but are more common in the later stages. They can feel uncomfortable or intense – almost like the real thing. But their irregularity is what differs them from the real thing.
During a contraction, the muscles in your womb contract and the pain increases. If you put your hand on your abdomen, you should feel it getting harder. When the muscles relax, the pain fades and your hand will feel the hardness ease.
The contractions are pushing your baby down and opening your cervix ready for your baby to go through. The contractions will become more frequent, rhythmic and longer, as the cervix starts to soften and open up (dilate). If they continue to build in intensity (lasting more than 30 seconds) and are around 5-10 minutes apart (for at least one hour), contact your midwife or maternity hospital. This is a clear indication that labour has started.
In a first pregnancy, it can take many hours before you are 4cm dilated and in “established labour”. In a first labour, the time from the start of established labour to full dilation can take between 6-12 hours. If you have any doubts about what you’re experiencing, call your doctor or midwife immediately.
7. Waters break
Most women experience this during labour at the hospital, but it can happen any time before labour starts. When it’s time for your baby to be born, the sac breaks and the amniotic fluid drains out through your vagina. It can feel like a sudden gush or a persistent trickle.
The amniotic fluid is clear to pale straw in colour – with no odour. When it comes out, it may be a little blood-stained to start with. Tell your midwife immediately if the waters have an odour or are coloured or if you are losing blood – this could indicate infection or that your baby is in distress. The baby is at risk of infection without fluid to protect it.
8. Change in baby’s activity
You may read in some books that your baby’s movements will decrease near to birth. This is not strictly true; it’s not that their movements decrease, but more that the pattern changes. You should still be having ten movements per hour, but instead of them being like the kicks you are used to, it will probably feel more like squirming and shuffling.
Remember, every labour experience is different, but the more you know of what to expect, the more prepared you’ll be for the first signs of your own labour. When in doubt, contact your midwife or maternity hospital for advice.