Signs and Symptoms of Labour

Water breaking? Contractions? Both are potential signs of labour but sometimes the signals are more subtle. You might find it hard to tell whether you're at the start of labour or not. To help, we've written about the most common signs of labour. Plus, we provide information on when you can expect to go into labour, the differences between real and false labour, and when to call your doctor or midwife.

When Will I Go Into Labour?

Although your estimated due date is usually set to 40 weeks from the first day of your last menstrual period, your baby may not arrive bang on time. To start with, your due date is just an estimate, even if the date was adjusted after a dating scan. Most pregnancies last between 37 and 42 weeks and only 5 percent of babies are born right on their due date. If your pregnancy isn't yet full term, be aware of the potential signs of preterm labour until you reach 38 weeks pregnant.

What Are the Early Signs of Labour?

Although every mum-to-be and every pregnancy is different, you may notice some of these signs of labour:

  • Backache. You might feel a heavy ache in your back area. Backaches can happen a little before labour starts or at the onset of labour. You might also feel something similar to heavy period pain around this time.

  • Mucus discharge. You might notice a thick, pinkish or blood-streaked discharge, called a show. This is the mucus plug that sealed your cervix during pregnancy. It often appears a little before labour begins or during early labour. Don't worry if you don't see it; it's not always noticeable.

  • Contractions. Contractions can come on slowly, often starting with a feeling of discomfort then becoming light, irregular contractions. Then, as labour progresses, contractions become stronger, longer and more frequent. Do your best to keep calm and to monitor the length, frequency and regularity of your contractions. If they start to come regularly you'll know that you're experiencing real labour contractions not Braxton Hicks contractions. When contractions start coming every 5 minutes and last 60 seconds or more, that's when it's probably a good time to call your midwife for advice on what to do next.

  • Water breaking. The amniotic sac around your baby will rupture during labour, or sometimes before, releasing the amniotic fluid inside. This is commonly called the water breaking. You could experience a gush of water or just a trickle. This is one of the key signs of labour and you should tell your doctor or midwife when this happens. You'll probably go into labour within 24 hours of your water breaking – if you're not already in labour. Your midwife will be able to advise you on the best course of action once your water has broken.

  • Nausea. This is also a sign of labour, as is vomiting and diarrhoea.

How Can I Tell Real and False Labour Signs Apart?

It's not unusual for first time mums-to-be head to the hospital too early when it's really just a false alarm. Braxton Hicks contractions can easily be mistaken for real labour contractions, particularly as these false labour contractions can often feel stronger – like true labour contractions – toward the end of the third trimester. The table below will help you tell the difference. If in doubt, your midwife will be able to assess your symptoms.

True Labour False Labour
Contractions are regular and follow a predictable pattern (such as every eight minutes). Contractions are irregular and unpredictable.
Contractions become more frequent and last longer over time. Contractions don't become more frequent or last longer over time.
Changes in activity will not stop the contractions. Resting may stop contractions.
Your doctor or midwife will notice your cervix softening and opening. No cervical changes occur. Your doctor or midwife will be able to check for this.

What Should I Do When I Go Into Labour?

Early labour can be unpredictable. It may be hours or even days before your labour progresses, especially if this is your first baby. At the start of labour, you may not need to go to the hospital or birth centre just yet. If your midwife or doctor say it's OK, you could be more comfortable staying at home a little longer. If you haven't already, now's the time to get your hospital bag packed.

Realising you're in labour can bring feelings of excitement, disbelief or apprehension. Try to stay calm and focused. You might want to arrange to have your partner or friend stay with you to help record labour symptoms, keep you company and get you to the hospital when the time comes. You may also want to try some labour comfort measures such as:

  • Getting up and going for a walk

  • Trying some relaxation or breathing techniques that you might have learned in your prenatal classes

  • Changing positions

  • Taking a shower or a bath

  • Having something to eat and drink

  • A pain killer like Paracetamol may be safe to take, but always check with your doctor or midwife first. How do you think you'd like to manage the pain? Take our labour pain management quiz to tell us more.

When Should I Call My Midwife?

It's recommended you call your doctor or midwife for advice, if you notice your contractions are lasting for 60 seconds or more and come every 5 minutes; if your water breaks; if you're unsure whether you're in labour; or if you're worried about anything at all.

Always call your doctor or midwife right away if

  • you notice bright red bleeding

  • your water breaks and the water is smelly or coloured

  • you think your baby is moving less than usual

  • you are in constant pain

  • you think you are going into preterm labour, which is when you go into labour before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

FAQs at a Glance

What are the early signs of labour?

  • Backache

  • A show

  • Contractions

  • Water breaking

How can I stay comfortable in early labour?

In early labour, you want to relax as much as possible. It can often take a long time for labour to progress. Try going for a walk, eating something, taking a bath or practicing some relaxation techniques.

What are the signs of labour at 36 weeks?

If you experience signs of labour before you reach 37 weeks of pregnancy, you may be going into premature labour. These signs include contractions that do not go away and your water breaking. If you notice these or any other signs of labour, contact your doctor or midwife right away.

What is the role of the doula?

Doulas are trained to support you during around the time you give birth. Not a midwife, they are a kind of birth partner, providing practical and emotional support during labour and delivery. Doulas can do things like keep you company, hold your hand, and perhaps guide you through relaxation and breathing techniques.

You never know when your baby will finally arrive, so it's a good idea to have your hospital bag packed, your baby's nursery completed, and a stock of nappies ready to go earlier on in the third trimester. It might also help you feel more prepared when you notice those early signs of labour if you've read some more labour advice and tips. You can do this!

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below.
The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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