How to tell if you’re in labour

Worried your waters might break when you’re out? Confused as to what the signs are when you're really in labour? We look at how to know your baby's on the way...


Very few babies arrive by surprise as most labours start slowly and gently and you’ll probably be pacing around the house for a few hours wondering if this is ‘it’ or not. But what are the signs of labour and when should you feel them?


Braxton Hicks

What happens with Braxton Hicks?
“These are like ‘warm-up’ contractions and are your body’s way of toning the uterus muscle ready for labour,” says Jo Disney-Spiers, midwifery matron at Royal Hampshire County Hospital. “They feel like tightenings across the tummy, rather than pains coming from inside.”

Unlike true contractions, which increase in frequency, duration and strength, Braxton Hicks don’t usually have any set pattern.

When do Braxton Hicks happen?
“They normally happen from about 34 weeks but this can vary, and some women don’t have them at all,” says Jo.

What to do if you experience Braxton Hicks

“If you do feel Braxton Hicks, don’t panic – it’s a good sign your body is gearing up for the delivery,” reassures Jo.

A show

What happens with a show?
“This is the mucus plug that’s been blocking your cervix to protect your baby from infection,” says Jo. “It comes away as your cervix begins to soften in preparation for delivery.”
You’re most likely to have a show when you’re in the loo – it’ll probably look like a bit of yellowy or clear mucus, sometimes with small flecks of blood. But if you notice a lot of blood, or continue to bleed, ring your midwife.

When does a show happen?
“You can have a show up to two weeks before you go into labour, but it can happen during labour too,” says Jo. “You might not even notice losing it, as it could happen in the shower.”

What to do if you have a show
“To start with, carry on as normal, but be on the lookout for other signs that labour is on its way,” says Jo.

Waters breaking

What happens when your waters break?
Your ‘waters’ are the amniotic fluid that cushions your baby inside you and are said to ‘break’ if the membrane around them (the amniotic sac) pops. “There could be a gush, or just a trickle, depending on whether it’s the forewaters (the fluid in front of your baby’s head that’s likely to gush), or hindwaters (fluid behind your baby that’s more likely to trickle),” says Jo. The water should be clear, or a little yellow.

When do your waters break?
Some women’s waters break before labour, and others break after it’s begun.

What to do if your waters break
“Make sure you tell your midwife and carry on as normal until you have contractions,” says Jo. “If nothing happens within one to three days you may be induced to stop any infection reaching your baby.”


What happens when you have contractions?
This is it! Labour kicks off once you’re having regular contractions that become more frequent and intense. At first they might be infrequent and only mildly uncomfortable, or may even stop for a while.

When do contractions happen?
At the start of labour.

What to do if you’re having contractions
“Once they start it’s a good time to start using your breathing techniques,” says Jo. “Ring your hospital – you’ll probably be advised to stay at home until you have three contractions every 10 minutes and are struggling to speak during them, but this can vary depending on your hospital and whether it’s your first or subsequent baby.”

Three signs your baby’s on her way

1.You poo a lot
Mother nature often helps to ‘clear you out’ before the big day so there’s one less thing to worry about during labour

2. You’re ‘nesting’
Lots of mums-to-be have an urgent need to get the house ready for the new baby just before going into labour.

3. You have a burst of energy
Many women have last-minute surges of energy just before the birth, so if you’re hoovering the hallway at midnight don’t be surprised if labour soon follows.

Three signs your baby’s NOT on her way

1. You’re starving
Although it’s a good idea to keep your energy levels up for labour, a big appetite (as far as we know!) never signalled the arrival of a baby.

2. You feel exhausted
Resting now is a good idea, but any fatigue you may feel is down to the hard work of carrying your baby around in the later stages, rather than because she’s about to make an appearance.


3. Your baby stops moving
You should still feel your baby moving right up to the birth, so if she stops this isn’t a sign she’s on her way. Make sure you tell your midwife so she can check everything’s OK.

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