You can’t pinpoint the exact day and time you’ll go into labour: “that’s just impossible to predict,” says our expert GP Dr Philippa Kaye. But there are signs you can spot, both physical and emotional, that can signal your body is readying itself for labour and your contractions could be on their way soon.
As ever with pregnancy, though, there are no fixed rules. “Every pregnant woman experiences these pre-labour signs differently,” says Liz Halliday, Deputy Head of Midwifery at Private Midwives, “Some will have several signs or one strong sign; others will have no signs at all.”
These signs can broadly be divided into physical signs (something happening in your body), emotional signs (something affecting your thoughts and feelings) and other more anecdotal signs (something that women who’ve been through labour, or supported others going through labour, have noticed commonly happens). Of these, it’s only the physical ones that scientists would acknowledge as “official” signs of pre-labour. The emotional ones, though frequently commented on by midwives, would be classed as more observational than scientific, and it’s probably fair to say that the other signs mostly belong in the old wives’ tales category – fascinating but with little reliable evidence behind them.
Which of the following signs will be ringing the hell0-baby starting bell for you? Here’s what to look for…
Here are 17 signs that could mean you’re about to go into labour
THE PHYSICAL SIGNS
These are the bodily changes that medical experts widely accept as being signs that labour is imminent, though it could be some time – even some days –before contractions kick in and labour properly starts…
1. A ‘show’
“A ‘show’ is a jelly-like blob which comes out of your vagina,” says Dr Philippa. “It can look creamy or pinkish in colour or it can look more brown or streaked with blood. It can come out all in one go or in smaller pieces.
“It’s actually mucus – part or all of a plug of mucus that, during pregnancy, seals shut your cervix (the opening at the neck of your womb) to protect your baby from infection. As your due date draw nears and your body starts to prepare for labour, your cervix begins to soften and stretch, ready to open to allow your baby out, and this will dislodge the mucus plug and cause the ‘show’.”
How and when this dislodging happens varies. If it comes out in one go, you may notice it in your pants when you go to the loo, especially if it’s streaked with blood but, if it comes out in small pieces, you may not notice it at all. Some pregnant women have a ‘show’ at 37 weeks pregnant or even before; some don’t lose their mucus plug until they’re in full-on labour or even just before the baby’s born. So, it’s definitely a sign that your baby’s on their way “but it could be mere hours or several days,” says Dr Philippa.
2. Lower back pain
During pre-labour, you may experience an ache in your lower back ache, which may feel a bit similar to the back pains you can get when you’re expecting your period (in the days before you were pregnant, obviously).
“You might expect that pain related to the beginning of labour to be felt across your belly,” says Dr Philippa, “and it may well be but many women also experience early pain in their lower back. This can feel strong or just achey, and it can go down your legs.”
3. Braxton Hicks
Braxton Hicks are often called ‘practice contractions’ and that’s not a bad name for them. They feel like tightenings over your bump and, though they don’t steadily become more frequent and stronger, like ‘real’ contractions, they can be uncomfortable or even painful.
“Braxton Hicks are often said to be painless but they’re not always!” says Dr Philippa. “They can happen as your womb gets ready for labour. They are different to the contractions of labour as they are irregular, and don’t progress and get stronger and more frequent. Instead, you might have a few for a bit and then they go away again for a period of time
You can actually start feeling occasional Braxton Hicks as early on as 16 weeks but, whenever they start, they’re really only an indication that your womb’s gearing up for labour rather than actually about to go into labour. It’s possible that, if you’re near your due date and the Braxton Hicks are happening more and more often, then labour is nearer but not always. “Often an increase in Braxton Hicks contractions can merely be a sign that you’re dehydrated or need rest,” says midwife Liz.
And, of course, it’s perfectly possible to go into labour without experiencing even one Braxton Hicks – and that won’t affect the progression of your labour at all.
4. Loose bowels
If you’re experiencing diarrhoea 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.
“The hormone changes that lead up to labour help the cervix and other structures relax and loosen,” says Dr Philippa. “This can also lead to diarrhoea or looser stools than usual, so make sure that you keep well hydrated.”
5. A feeling of pressure down below
“Toward the end of their pregnancy, some women notice a pressure sensation in their genitals as their baby moves down into position for delivery,” says Dr Philippa. “You might also need to go to the toilet more often to pass urine or poo if there is also a feeling of pressure on your bladder or bowels.”
When your baby’s head moved down like this, you may hear your midwife refer to the face that your baby’s head is ‘engaged’. If this is your first baby, it can happen at any time from about 34 weeks; if it’s not your first baby, it might not happen until labour is actually starting. So, again, it’s a sign that something’s happening but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s happening soon!
6. A leaking feeling
A leak of fluid from your vagina can mean your waters are breaking – and this is definitely a sign that labour is not only on its way but on the way soon! “Your ‘waters’ are the amniotic fluid that surrounds your baby in your womb,” says Dr Philippa, “and you can tell it’s amniotic fluid (and not wee) because it’s clear or a very pale yellow colour and it doesn’t have an odour.
“TV and movie dramas would have us believe that waters always break with a gush and a splash onto the floor, and then labour starts, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, most women don’t notice their waters breaking because it often doesn’t happen until labour has already started.” And on rare occasions, babies are born with their ‘waters’ intact.
So, if you waters break, you may hear a ‘pop’ but more likely, says Dr Philippa, “it’ll be a steady leak which feels warm and wet. It may also be much slower, like a slow continuous drip.
“If you aren’t sure if you are leaking amniotic fluid or not, or if it’s bloody, smelly or discoloured, speak to someone on your antenatal team – they’re likely to ask you to come in to be checked.”
If it is amniotic fluid and you are over 37 weeks pregnant, then you may be sent home to wait for contractions to start – something that would be expected to happen within the next 24 hours. You’ll also be given guidance about what to do if contractions have not begun on their own after 24 hours.
7. Vaginal pains
Shooting pains in the vagina and pelvis – sometimes rather splendidly called ‘lightning crotch’ – can occur in the last few weeks of pregnancy. “These pains can be sharp, stabbing or like electric shocks in the genital area and can radiate to your inner thighs,” says Dr Philippa. ‘They tend to last less than a minute or so, though.”
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.
What to do if you think you are going into labour
If you have been experiencing some of the physical and emotional changes described above and your due date is looming, try to relax and pay attention to the changes to your body. Contact your antenatal team if you are worried about anything, make sure your birth partner is primed and that you have your birth bag packed or homebirth team on standby. When you think you are in early labour, stay mobile and hydrated and follow your birth plan (if you have one) but be ready to adapt if things speed up or slow down. Early labour can last a long time, especially if this is your first baby, so you could try and get some rest, relax and prepare for what lies ahead.
8. Your bump drops
In the last weeks of your pregnancy, your may notice your bump dropping in position, starting to protrude a wee bit lower down on your body that it did before. This drop is sometimes called ‘lightening’ because it eases the pressure on your stomach and lungs, making it more comfortable to eat and catch your breath. Your baby may ‘drop’ right before labour begins, or it might happen a few weeks before.
“If it is your first baby, your bump may drop a bit lower in the last 2 to 4 weeks of pregnancy as the baby moves lower into the pelvis to prepare for birth,” says Dr Philippa. “If it isn’t your first pregnancy, though, the drop may not happen until labour itself.
“If you do drop, you might notice that your gait changes or your waddle more – or just that you can breathe a bit easier or get less heartburn as there is a bit more room in your tummy as the baby moves further into your pelvis”
THE EMOTIONAL SIGNS
Not all signs that labour is approaching are physical; there are also emotional indicators. They won’t be covered in any doctors’ manuals, as they’re more anecdotal than evidence-based, but plenty of midwives say they’ve observed them and you may find that some of them happen to you.
9. Feeling overwhelmed
Some women report feeling heightened emotions some time before labour – and midwife Liz agrees that a big change in emotional state can be a sign that labour is imminent. This can mean you suddenly feel tearful or very chatty and ‘buzzy’ or that you just want to sit quietly and not be very sociable.
In the very late stages of pregnancy, many of us feel a sudden and pressing urge to tidy and organise our home that’s often called nesting. And, if you’re not usually the super-houseproud type, it can be a bit surprising to be gripped by the need to fold clothes, rearrange furniture, touch up paintwork, file papers and batch-cook meals. “Lots of pregnant women report ‘nesting’ in the days running up to labour,” says Anne Richley, one of MadeForMums’ expert midwives. “It’s a feeling that they need to have everything ready for their baby.”
Anxiety, nervousness and general feelings of butterflies in your stomach can reach a peak before labour’s about to start, especially if this is your first baby and you’re wondering what labour’s going to be like.
OTHER SIGNS YOU MAY SPOT
These signs have very little – or no – scientific evidence to back them up, so you need to take them with a pinch of salt. But they’re fun and fascinating – and some women swear by them – so we couldn’t not include them.
12. A change in your sleep patterns
If you’ve always slept soundly throughout your pregnancy and you suddenly find you can’t sleep or you just don’t feel sleepy till much later in the evening, that’s apparently a sign that labour is due. Saying that, there’s also a theory that suddenly sleeping better than ever is a sign, too…
13. The urge to clean
Yep, if you’re bleaching the toilet, scrubbing the skirting boards and deep-cleaning the oven when you could be lolling on the sofa watching a Netflix boxset, it might not be that long until you’re bringing your new baby back to your (sparklingly clean) home.
14. Your pets won’t leave you alone
It’s said that your pets can know before you do that you might be going into labour. And this is something midwife Liz has heard reported, 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,” she says.
15. You don’t want to leave your house
Fancy the cinema? No. A meal out? No. A quick visit to friends? No. A walk round the park? No. Suddenly feeling like all you want to do is stay put for the foreseeable is often cited as an indicator that labour’s about to start.
16. Your ears glow
Apparently, acupuncturists can tell that labour if is imminent by looking at your ears – and if they’re ‘glowing’, get that hospital bag ready pronto! We’ve no idea how this works – or how you spot the ‘glow’ – but we love it!
17. Your mum tells you it’s about to happen
Well, mothers do know best! So your mum might have a 6th sense for things kicking off in the labour department. Just don’t make that the only reason you turn up on the labour ward, OK?!
About our expert Dr Philippa Kaye
Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.
About our author Becky Harrington
Becky Harrington is a freelance journalist who specialises in healthcare. She has been a journalist for almost 30 years, writing and editing for a range of titles including Nursing Standard and the British Journal of Midwifery. She is also mum of 3.