You can’t predict exactly when you’ll go into labour, but there are signs your contractions may be on their way soon. But, says Liz Halliday, Deputy Head of Midwifery at Private Midwives, “Women will experience pre-labour differently: some will have strong signs that labour is starting, others will have no signs at all.”
Liz says the types of things to look out for include “a ‘show’, a clear out (frequent bowel motions, diarrhea and nausea), cramps, emotional swings, and a feeling that you don’t want to leave the house”. While they don’t necessarily mean you’re about to start getting contractions, they could mean they’ll be coming soon.
Remember, though, Liz says, “There is no way to know when labour might start. Every woman and every pregnancy is different, so although you might have a strong sense of how long your pregnancy might be based on your history, your family history or your instinct, it is impossible to predict.”
Below are the symptoms that experts, and our mums, have told us were – for them – signs that labour was starting.
1. A ‘show’
Before labour starts, you might see a blob of mucus in your pants or when you go to the loo. “The ‘show’, or operculum, is a mucous plug that is held in place by the cervix to protect the baby from infection,” says Liz.
It looks a bit like an uncooked egg white. Seeing it means that the cervix is beginning to soften and possibly open up a little bit. Liz says, “As the cervix softens in late pregnancy, the plug is slowly released and women may see parts of it when they visit the toilet. This can happen up to 2 weeks before labour starts.”
The ‘bloody show’, by comparison, says Liz, “is a lot heavier, it’s mucousy and streaked with bright red blood. It usually comes away either in the early stages of labour or just before the baby is born. It is passed as the cervix dilates and the baby descends.”
On our forum, Beartobe says, “I started to lose my mucus plug so I knew labour was on its way. I’d had a sweep and a few tightenings after that. And then all went quiet. Later that night I woke up with this really strange feeling across my back! Took me 3 of them to realise they were contractions!”
What happens when you lose your mucus plug?
2. Lower back pain
During early labour you may experience a lower back ache, which may feel a bit like period pains. On our forum, precious2 says, “I went into labour at 36+6… Well we’d had sex on the Saturday afternoon and almost immediately after I started with period pains and lower backache. I didn’t think they were contractions because I could easily cope with the pain. As the evening went on the pain became worse and I was constantly on the toilet, but come 9pm everything stopped altogether. On the Sunday afternoon I started with mild contractions, backache and couldn’t get off the loo but by 7pm everything had stopped again. At 12 midnight everything started again, and Lo was born at 37wks exactly!”
What does it feel like before going into labour?
3. Braxton Hicks
As your hormones change your cervix will become more flexible and may start to tense in a kind of practice contraction, known as Braxton Hicks.
Some mums experience these earlier in pregnancy and they don’t usually hurt. You might notice a tightening of your bump and it can be quite uncomfortable. If they start to ramp up, they may be a sign that labour is near. However, says Liz, “While some women’s labour may be preceded by an increased frequency of Braxton Hicks contractions, many women do not experience them at all and will still go into labour.”
She also warns that, “Often an increase in Braxton Hicks contractions is merely a sign that a woman may be dehydrated or need rest.
“However, if you experience a crampy, menstrual-like pain with this type of contraction, it may indicate that labour is near.”
On our forum, EmmaAndAoifeBelle experienced increased Braxton Hicks in the very early stages of labour. She says, “I have been having very strong, regular Braxton Hicks since Thursday. On Sunday cramping started, Monday some of my plug come away, and Tuesday I get taken in to check me over as still strong tightenings and stronger cramping.”
What are Braxton Hicks? Find out more here
4. Loose bowels
If you’re experiencing loose bowels or diarrhea close to your baby’s due date, it may be a sign that labour is near. This ’emptying out’ is thought to be nature’s way of making room for the baby.
A few MFMers noticed that they needed to poo more often as labour was approaching. Right before labour hayley_plus3 says her bowels “totally cleaned out – sorry for tmi lol – and I was very stiff the day before, bit uncomfy to walk”. And laura1809 agrees, “I was the same as hayley and was at toilet lots of times in a few hours.”
MummyPhoebe also experienced loose bowels in early labour, “I spent the first hour or so of my labour on the loo. As soon as I had my very first contraction I was on the loo which isn’t the best or most comfortable place to be when your in agonising pain.”
5. The feeling of needing to poo
Maybe you’re not actually going to the toilet more often – but feel as though you need to.
“The constant feeling of needing to poo in the week before giving birth were defo my symptoms,” says MFMer BobbieRae.
And raincloud says, “I woke at 1.30am with back ache and needing the loo. Woke again an hour later with same symptoms. There were ‘bits’ in my urine which I thought might be my waters breaking. H immediately said I was in labour but I wasn’t sure as I didn’t have any other pain/symptoms. He rang the hospital and they said to come in. Contractions had started by that point and in the car I timed them as being 2 and a half minutes apart.”
Latent phase of labour – signs, symptoms, and when it becomes active labour
6. A ‘leaking’ feeling
Your waters breaking is definitely a sign labour is on its way. They sometimes ‘pop’ and sometimes leak slowly.
MFMer CupcakeladyJ says, “It was never confirmed officially, but a midwife I spoke to when I was in labour with Toby said my waters probably started leaking slowly. They would have started on the Thursday and I gave birth on the following Tuesday.”
If the bag of waters around your baby breaks, releasing the amniotic fluid, most women will then go into labour within 24 hours, but if this doesn’t happen you’ll probably be advised to have labour artificially induced (started) to reduce the likelihood of infection to your baby.
Your waters tend to break at night, we look at why
7. A pressure feeling down below
While lots of mums feel actual pain, like period pains or pains in their lower back, others say they feel pressure down below. This may mean that the baby’s head is engaged or that labour is soon on its way. On our forum, Jx, who updates the next day to say she is in slow labour, says, “Stomach is constantly hard and tight baby been lively with low pressure.”
What does it mean when your baby’s head is engaged?
8. Vaginal pains
On our forum, one mum wonders if her vaginal pain means she’s in early labour. Molly Connick says, “When I’m laying in bed, I get random shooting pains and I feel really sick. Does this sound like early labour to you guys?”
SamanthaJG replies, “I was getting those shooting pains a few nights ago, I think they call it ‘lightning crotch’.”
Lightning Crotch is the feeling of shooting pains in your vagina and pelvis. It is caused by the position of your baby as they descend into the birth canal. While it does mean you’re getting close to meeting your baby, it doesn’t necessarily mean labour is imminent. It can happen for weeks before you go into labour.
9. Your bump ‘drops’
Your bump ‘dropping’ is actually a term called ‘lightening’. It happens when your baby’s head engages with your pelvis. Your baby may ‘drop’ right before labour begins, or it might happen a few weeks before. Ever heard of the pregnancy waddle?
“Unfortunately the timing of when your baby’s head engages does not indicate when you’ll go into labour,” explains MFM midwife Anne Richley. “For many first time mums, your baby’s head will engage around 38 weeks, but many babies move into the pelvis much earlier than this. But it doesn’t mean those mums will give birth earlier.”
The good news is, when your baby drops, there is less pressure on your diaphram, so breathing may get easier and – if you had heartburn – that may stop.
On our forum, some MFMers noticed it happened right before labour. Allyd28 says, “My bump dropped massively the night before I went into labour. I remember getting ready for bed and looked in the mirror and couldn’t believe the difference. It never dropped at all 1st time.”
How your pregnancy bump drops when your baby’s head is engaged – in pictures
10. A change in your sleep patterns
Alison Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Midwifery, says women may be more wakeful before they go into labour and some women find they can’t sleep – others, alternatively, reckon they sleep better.
MilliesMummy tells us one of her early signs of labour, “In the days before labour, I was really agitated, had a burst of energy and slept really well the night before.” And another MFMer Bethyo says, “The last 2 or 3 nights [before labour] I slept unusually poorly (hot, sweating, very restless).”
If your sleep has changed, read more on how to get more rest in pregnancy here
11. Overwhelming emotions
As we’ve mentioned, not all signs that labour is approaching are physical – some of our mums report heightened emotions some time before labour. Liz Halliday agrees that a change in emotional state can be a sign that labour is imminent.
And MFMer Angieta says, “I was overwhelmingly emotional about a week before.”
Moominmummy says, “My sister was very emotional all day then started getting mild contractions… As they would stop if she moved around etc, she was told she was in false labour for 2 days before it turned into full on labour.”
Want to know more about the emotional changes that happen pre-labour? We’ve got more on that here
More of a sign that labour will happen in the near future rather than it being imminent, many mums-to-be feel the urge to clean and sort in the later stages of their pregnancy. “Lots of women report ‘nesting’ in the days running up to labour – feeling that they need to have everything ready for their baby, and are constantly cleaning and preparing,” says midwife Anne Richley.
MFMers agree. “I’ve gone into overdrive,” says Sam Fellows. “I’ve got 5 kids and due with baby number 6 in 4 weeks time and I’ve been nesting too. I’ve spring cleaned my entire house several times this week already so I’m hoping I calm down for a couple of days now to preserve some energy for labour when it does eventually start.”
Got the urge to clean the house in late pregnancy? You’re not alone
Another feeling some mums say that have felt as an early sign of labour is nerves. “I had almost a nervous feeling in my tummy the few days running up,” says Angieta.
14. Your panty liner changes colour
OK, bear with us on this one. The AmnioSense diagnostic panty liner has been NICE approved and has a strip in the middle of it which changes colour when it comes into contact with amniotic fluid – if you’re wearing one towards the end of your pregnancy and it changes colour, it could be a sign your waters are breaking and labour could well be starting.
15. Your pets won’t leave you alone
We’ve heard it said that your pets know can know before you do that you’re pregnant – apparently they can also sense that you might be going into labour, too. “A change in the way your pet behaves around you – suddenly becoming very clingy or very distant – could be a sign labour is near,” says Liz Halliday.
Our MFMers have noticed it, too, “I can’t shift the feeling that something’s gonna happen… My cat is prowling round and won’t leave me alone for very long,” Pixiewoo tells us.
16. Your ears glow
OK, Ok, so we admit – this isn’t one we’ve heard a lot – but we have had a mum, Helen B, who visited an acupuncture expert around her due date and was told she sensed that her ‘ears were glowing’ – and that she would go into labour in the next couple of days (which she did).
We think this is because acupuncturists believe that different acupoints all over the body will direct flow of energy to other parts of the body.
Thinking about using acupuncture during pregnancy? Read our guide
17. Your mum tells you it’s about to happen
This is definitely a case of mother knows best. One of our MFMers told us she visited her mum 3 weeks before her due date with her first child – and her mum touched her bump and told her: “That baby’s coming”. Her waters broke just a few hours later and she had the baby the next day. 😲
What do you think?
What did you experience before labour – did you have any signs that labour was near? Tell us in the comments below or over on Facebook.
About Liz Halliday
Liz Halliday is the Deputy Head of Midwifery at Private Midwives, the leading provider of private midwifery services
About Anne Richley
Anne Richley is a community midwife and a regular contributor to Made for Mums.
About Alison Edwards
Alison has been a nurse and midwife since 1985 and has been in higher education for over 10 years. She is a Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Birmingham City School of Nursing and Midwifery.