Early signs of labour – and what to do when labour starts

Early signs of labour - Motherhood Diaries

During the last few weeks of pregnancy, you will start to notice a few changes that could indicate that your body is showing signs that labour is approaching. In this article, we will go through the signs of early labour as well as when to go to the hospital and coping mechanisms that you can try, like massage therapy for labour

What are the signs of labour?

You may experience one, any or all of the following symptoms, which indicate signs that labour is near

Your baby’s head engages into the pelvis

Your baby’s engagement may start at around 2 to 6 weeks before going into labour, but may also not happen until you are in actually labour, especially if this isn’t your first baby.

Braxton Hicks contractions

These painless contractions (which can sometimes become painful towards the end of your pregnancy) means that your uterus is tightening and preparing for labour. The more often and stronger they become the more indication that these are signs labour is coming.

Increased mucus discharge from the vagina

During pregnancy, your cervix is blocked by a thick plug of mucus to prevent any bacteria from entering the uterus. During the latter stages of pregnancy, this mucus plug might be pushed into your vagina which means you notice an increase in vaginal discharge that is either clear, pink or slightly bloody. This may happen for a few days before bringing on labour.

Weight loss

You may experience slight weight loss, which indicates the first signs of labour. This is down to a reduction of amniotic fluid around the baby and the feeling that the baby has dropped lower (lightening) as their head settles into your pelvis and engages.

Spurt of energy: nesting

You may have heard of the term ‘nesting’ before and it refers to you suddenly having a burst of energy and feeling ready to prepare for the baby. You may start preparing meals, set up the nursery, re-pack your hospital bag and spring clean the house. This is known as the ‘nesting instinct’ and is a psychological sign that labour is coming.

Baby is less active

Your baby is running out of space and so starts to prepare for active labour.

Rupture of membranes: your water breaks

Your amniotic sac cushions your baby in the uterus and protects them from any unwanted bacteria from the outside world. One of the early signs of labour approaching is when these membranes rupture, which is another word for your waters breaking. Unlike the movies, your waters don’t have to all come out at once in a massive gush in the middle of the street. Sometimes it can be just a little trickle for a few days. If you’re unsure, contact your hospital straight away, where doctors can test to see if your water broke or that you’ve leaked urine. If confirmed that your membranes have ruptured then timing is of the essence because your baby is no longer protected by the amniotic sac cushion. The longer your labour takes to start after your water breaks, the more susceptible you and your baby are to developing an infection. So, you may find that your hospital will stimulate uterine contractions as a way of bringing labour on its own (labour induction).

Below is an infographic which you can print off and place on your fridge or pin to your Pinterest board to remind you of the early signs of labour.

How will you know you are in labour?

Once you have experienced some or all of the signs listed above, you may be wondering, “Am I in labour?” Once confirmed, early contractions will follow shortly after and these contractions feel different to Braxton Hicks. But, if you’re still not sure of the imminent signs of labour, check out below the things you should look for as signs and symptoms of labour:

Labour contractions are regular

Labour contractions have a rhythmic quality, with each one gradually building up to a peak and then falling back down. Start timing your contractions from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next contraction.

Labour contractions get stronger

Look for regular patterns that will become progressively more intense and closer together as time goes on. Braxton Hicks contractions will be irregular and won’t get stronger one after the other. Note the length and strength of each contraction to see if they get shorter in length, If they do, then you are heading into active labour.

Labour contractions require concentration

During early labour you may be able to talk through your contractions but as they get stronger, you will be unable to do anything but concentrate on breathing to work through the pain. YOu won’t be able to have a chat or carry on with your daily duties.

Labour contractions will encourage you to find ways to ease the pain

You will be constantly looking for positions and ways to ease the pain between every contraction, like finding sitting positions, bouncing on a ball and breathing through the pain when doubled over.

Labour contractions are strong enough to require you to rest in between each peak and trough

When labour contractions are coming in thick and fast, all you want to do is find a way to rest – you are tired and you won’t have the energy to do anything else.

Labour contractions may also feature back pain

Especially with back labour, you will experience constant minor backaches, with regular bouts of stronger back pain.

When should you head to the hospital?

During early labour, you will probably feel more comfortable being at home, but as your labour contractions get progressively stronger and begin to settle into a pattern, i.e. lasting 60 seconds or more, then dilation will occur and that’s when you feel like you will need to head to the hospital as soon as possible.

Ask your partner to take you in the car preferably, so you can rest on your hands and knees on the back seat, as this position may be more comfortable for you. As soon as you get to the hospital, head to the admission desk and let your midwives know that you are in labour, as well as the length and strength of each contraction. You will be taken to the labour ward by one of the midwives.

If you are having a home birth then you would need to call the midwife to come to you. If there is a complicatio or an unlikely event occurring your midwife will let you know when it is necessary to go to the hospital.

Your admission into hospital

When you arrive in the labour ward, your midwife will take basic observations like your blood pressure, urine temperature, pregnancy history and your obstetric history by looking through your maternity notes.

Your midwife will then listen in on the baby’s heartbeat and have a feel for their position in your belly. You may have an internal examination to check to see if there is any progress with the labour. You can have your partner with you during these observations.

You may also sit in a chair and some hospitals will record a 20 – 30-minute trace on the electronic fetal monitor as part of their admission procedure. There is no research to prove the benefits of routine electronic monitoring in labour, however, once these admission procedures have been completed you will be shown to your labour room where you can try to make yourself comfortable for the rest of your labour and birth.

You may find that sometimes labour can slow down or even stop altogether. This is normal as it’s your body’s natural reaction to the change in environment. Allow some time to adjust to your surroundings, including the staff, and labour will re-establish itself again. If you want, you can always go home again, especially if you are in early labour. The midwife will let you know how dilated you are after an internal examination. There is no need to speed up labour unless your baby is showing clear signs of being distressed.

How long does labour take?

Unfortunately, it’s like asking how long is a piece of string. Labour will take as long as it takes for your baby to be ready to come out. Each mother is different and each has their own unique way of giving birth. Generally, if this is your first baby, labour will take longer, but again, this isn’t true for everyone.

On average, the first stage of labour can be around 12 to 14 hours and the second stage of labour is from 1 to 2 hours. Labour and birth can obviously take much longer and still be normal as long as you and baby are in good health. It has been shown that subsequent births may have an average length of 6 to 8 hours with the second stage taking around 5 minutes to an hour to complete. Again these are approximate timings and if it takes longer, then as long as you and baby are ok, then allow labour to take its course.

Below is an infographic which shows you the different stages of labour that you can print out and stick to your fridge or pin on your Pinterest board.

How to make labour easier

Generally, your body will work best if it feels safe and secure during labour. Below are some techniques to lower cortisol levels (which has been known to pause or even stop labour) and help your body prepare for labour and birth.

Continuous support

It’s important to have continuous support from partner, friends or family during labour as they can provide you with that much-needed boost when you’re tired and offer you moral support when you feel like you are not getting anywhere during labour. Having suitable support also has shown to shorten labour and reduce the requirement for pain relief.

Find somewhere quite, dark and comfortable to labour

You need to feel safe and secure to labour progressively so ask the hospital staff to alter the conditions in the room so that the lights are dimmed, the door is closed and the bed is positioned so you have more floor space for bean bags, chairs and birthing balls. Remember you don’t have to lie down on the bed during labour. In fact, if you stay as vertical as possible you can actually stimulate labour and the contractions will feel more comfortable

Stay hydrated and fuel your energy

Drink regularly during labour and eat light snacks to provide yourself with enough energy to carry on.

Listen to your instincts

Your instincts should trump here as you are aiming to listen to your body during labour. Stay focused on what you are doing and if you have a certain wish, make sure it is fulfilled. For example, you need to stand up to help with the contractions, so make sure you stand up. Or if you want to rock from side to side then do so. You are the centre of attention and you should respond to any urges if you have them.

Breathe through your contractions

Breathing has been proven to be a very effective way of calming the body down and lowering the cortisol levels. Breathe through each contraction slowly, exhaling for longer and inhaling for less. Focusing on breathing will take your mind off the pain temporarily too.

Use massage therapy to help with labour pains

Massaging can be very effective to calming the body down and speeding up the labour process, as well as direct the pain somewhere else for temporary relief. Below are some techniques that you can ask your partner to do when you are feeling the need for massage therapy:


Massage your scalp and temples lightly with small circles and then stroke your eyebrows and forehead in a straight motion lightly. Do this until you feel the need to change position.

Neck and shoulders

Get your partner to make large and small circles across your neck and shoulders and ask them to push gently down on your shoulders during a contraction.


Get your partner to rub your arms in circles and make light strokes up and down the inner and outer part of the arms towards your fingers.


During a contraction, your partner can make slow but firm circles to the lower back and place firm pressure with the heal of his hand to help ease the pressure. Get him to make light strokes from the neck to the sacrum and then press lightly between the gaps in your pelvis.


It might help you to make light quick strokes up and down your thighs and rub gently to increase the circulation in your legs.


Rub the inner and outer parts of your ankles and press the heels with the palm of your hands.

Remember – do not use any essential oils during massage as some are not suitable or safe during pregnancy. Stick to vegetable oil if required.

Remember that your body knows what to do during birth, so it’s important to trust your instincts and let your body do what it’s meant to do. Sometimes factors like discomfort, stress and less emotional support can complicate labour, so relax as much as you possibly can, keep an open mind and prepare for all possibilities. You are only a few short moments away from finally meeting your baby!

If you’re pregnant, sign up below to receive personalised weekly emails straight to your inbox!

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
/ / ( dd / mm / yyyy )

Please check the ‘Email’ box below if you are happy to receive weekly pregnancy emails from Motherhood Diaries

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices here.

FREE Resource Library!

Subscribe now and receive your exclusive password to access a whole library of extra content!

Checklists, Printables, Guides - it's all yours when you subscribe!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
Leyla Preston (603 Posts)

Leyla Preston is the owner and Editor of Motherhood Diaries global magazine for parents. Leyla is a busy mother of two even busier boys; Aron, 8, and Aidan, 7. When Leyla isn’t feeding, managing a gazillion tasks or cleaning the infinite mess at home, she is busy working on this magazine and a new cooking channel coming very soon – no rest for the wicked!You can follow Leyla on Twitter (@M_Diaries) or join the busy Motherhood Diaries Facebook group where all mums get together and share stories and solutions with one another: https://www.facebook.com//groups/motherhooddiaries/