Signs and Symptoms of Labour

Water breaking? Contractions? Those are both sure signs of labour, but sometimes, the signs labour is approaching are more subtle. A woman's body almost always gives her the signals she needs and the inner wisdom to recognize them; however, to help you understand them, we’ve compiled a list of the most common signs of labour. Labour prepares your body for the delivery of your baby, and it can start off slowly. Read on to find out when you can expect to go into labour; the differences between real and false labour; and the differences between early and active labour.

When Will I Go Into Labour?

Although your due date is usually set to 40 weeks, don’t expect your baby to be there on the dot. To start with, your due date may not be accurate - it's just an estimate, and could be off by as much as two weeks, even if the date was adjusted after an ultrasound. It’s common for most women to go into labour between 38 and 42 weeks. Just make sure you keep an eye out for the signs of labour below and have your birth plan ready.

What Are the Signs of Labour Approaching?

It’s very unlikely that you will suddenly go into labour without warning. Your body will let you know that you’re close to the big day, so you can make sure your hospital bag is packed, and be ready to go to the hospital when the time is right. Although every woman is different, you may notice some of these signs that labour is near:

  • A Change in Energy Levels If you’re feeling extra tired or experiencing a sudden surge of energy in the days or weeks before labour, this is perfectly normal. You might also have the urge to "nest" and prepare your home for the baby. Although nesting can begin any time during your pregnancy, many women experience it just before labour. Don’t overexert yourself. Just rest, and save your energy.

  • Lightening Your baby drops lower into your pelvis in the weeks, days, or hours before labour. This is called lightening, because you may find breathing a little easier.

  • Bloody Show You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked discharge called a bloody show. This is the mucus plug that sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It often appears several days before labour begins, although it’s not always noticeable.

If you notice these changes, it could be an indication that your labour is going to start in the next few days.

What Are the Early Signs of Labour?

Although every pregnancy is different, and there is no definite set of events, you may experience some early signs of labour. Some of these can be very subtle, and you may not even notice them. Contractions are the most common first sign of labour.

Just before you go into labour, your cervix, the lower part of your uterus, will soften, thin out, and shorten. You may feel a little discomfort, maybe even a few light, irregular contractions. Your cervix will also start to dilate (open), which can happen slowly at first but will progress more quickly as you approach active labour. You may get a few, more regular contractions coming every 5 to 15 minutes, lasting 60 to 90 seconds. Do your best to keep calm and to monitor the length, frequency, and regularity of your contractions.

Early labour, which is the first part of what's called Stage 1 labour, can be an unpredictable in terms of duration. It may be hours or even days before you progress to active labour, the second part of Stage 1 labour, especially if this is your first baby. This time will usually get shorter with subsequent deliveries. Until your contractions get more regular and become more intense, or your water breaks, just stay relaxed.

However, call your doctor or midwife if you notice bright red bleeding (not pale pink or dark brown), if your water breaks (especially if the fluid is green or brown or has a foul odour), if your baby is less active, or you have a headache, vision problems, or sudden swelling. Also call your doctor if you have signs of preterm labour, which is when you go into labour before the baby is ready to be born.

What Do I Need to Do when in Early Labour?

If you experience only a few signs of labour approaching, you may not need to go to the hospital just yet. Labour can take a lot of time, and you’ll be more comfortable, and perfectly safe, staying at home. Your doctor or midwife will give you guidance based on your labour signs and your individual situation.

Realizing you're in labour can bring feelings ranging from excitement to disbelief or apprehension. Try to stay calm and focused. Arrange to have your partner or friend with you to help record labour symptoms, keep you company, and get you to the hospital when the time comes.

You can also try to ease any discomfort by:

  • Getting up and going for a walk.

  • Trying some relaxation or breathing techniques you learned in your prenatal class.

  • Changing positions.

  • Taking a shower or a bath.

Call your doctor or midwife, whether it’s day or night, if you notice your contractions coming in stronger and more frequently, if your water breaks, if you’re unsure whether you’re in labour yet, or if you’re worried about anything.

If you come to the hospital before you’re in active labour, there is a good chance we’ll send you back home.

Tiffany Montgomery, labour and delivery nurse

You can learn more about when to go to hospital for labour and what happens when labour starts from nurses in our video guides.

What Are the Signs of Active Labour?

Active labour is when things start to really happen. Inside your body, your cervix should be dilating from 6 to 10 centimeters, and you will notice stronger signs that labour is here, including:

  • Water Breaking Shortly before delivery (but sometimes only during active labour), the amniotic sac ruptures and releases the fluid inside. This is commonly called the water breaking. You could experience a gush of water or just a trickle. If your water breaks, notify your doctor or midwife. Most women go into labour within 24 hours of their water breaking.

  • Strong and Regular Contractions You may have had occasional contractions in the last few months, but as you enter active labour, your contractions should feel stronger, closer together, and get more regular. Each contraction will last about 30 to 70 seconds, and their strength will increase steadily. Timing your contractions can help you keep track of your progress.

  • Cramp in Your Legs You may feel your legs cramp when you go into active labour.

  • Back Pain or Pressure You could experience backache or a heavy, achy feeling as the pressure on your back increases.

  • Nausea Some women feel nauseated as active labour begins.

Active labour can last from four to eight hours, sometimes even more. Most women will dilate at the rate of one centimeter per hour. Once your water breaks or your contractions start getting regular and stronger together, it’s time to go to the hospital or birthing centre, and your healthcare team will guide you through the rest.

How Can I Tell Real and False Labour Signs Apart?

If you’re having your first baby, you may think you’re going into labour when it’s really just a false alarm, and it’s too early to head to the hospital. Use the table below to help distinguish between true labour and false labour.

True Labour False Labour
Contractions are regular and follow a predictable pattern (such as every eight minutes). Contractions are irregular and unpredictable, occurring, for example, in intervals of ten minutes, then six minutes, two minutes, eight minutes, etc.
You experience three types of progression: contractions become more frequent, longer lasting, and stronger. No progression is seen over time in the closeness of the contraction intervals, length, or strength of the contractions.
Each contraction is felt starting at the lower back, radiating around to the front, low in the groin. Contractions are felt in the front.
A change in activity or position will not slow or stop contractions. A change in activity or position may cause contractions to slow or stop.
Your doctor or midwife will notice your cervix softening, thinning, or dilating. No cervical changes occur.

However, if you have any doubts about whether you’re in labour or not, call your healthcare provider for advice.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Diarrhea could be a sign of labour or preterm labour, so if you notice this or other flu-like symptoms like vomiting, contact your healthcare provider right away.

  • It’s time to call your healthcare provider and possibly head for the hospital if you water has broken, if you are experiencing any bleeding, or if your contractions are coming regularly at least every five minutes.

  • It’s normal for some babies to arrive a little late. Your healthcare provider will continue to monitor your progress, and in some cases, you may be given medication to help your cervix dilate and labour may even be induced at your provider’s discretion.

    You’ll have calculated your due date, but babies can arrive a little early. So, in the third trimester, get your hospital bag packed stock up on diapers, and get some labour tips. Knowing you are prepared will help reduce anxiety when you notice those early signs of labour. You’re nearing the end of your pregnancy, and you’re about to bring your baby into the world. You can do this!