Early signs of labour

For some mothers, the signs and symptoms of early labour can begin to reveal themselves up to a month before you deliver your baby. For others, they may show up only a few hours before labour begins!

Labour signs and symptoms
Woman in labour

It’s a good idea to be aware of what to look for well before your little one makes an appearance.

According to medical author and doctor Jane K Witman, “No-one knows exactly how labour starts”.

“Some researchers think hormonal changes in the fetus cause the placenta to produce increased levels of a substance known as corticotropin-releasing hormone. This changes the balance of the mother’s hormones, which have kept the uterus in a relaxed state,” she explains.

Once the process is triggered, your cervix begins to soften and thin and, in most cases, contractions — signaling the start of labour — begin.

For some mums, this can happen in your eighth month of pregnancy, while other pregnant women won’t notice any symptoms of labour until their water breaks.

How to spot “false labour”

In general, false labour has several distinct characteristics. However, if you have any doubt at all, don’t hesitate to call your obstetrician or your hospital. It’s much better to front up to the hospital for a false alarm than it is to deliver your own baby in your living room!

Characteristics of false labour can include contractions that:

  • Decrease with walking or movement
  • Ease with change of position — when you’re in genuine labour, contractions persist despite movement and/or your change of position
  • Do not increase in frequency or intensity
  • Are felt in the front only — true labour pains usually begin in the back, and move around to the front

Signs of genuine labour

When your body is ready to give birth, you will generally experience one or more of the following symptoms (often simultaneously):

  • Engagement. Also known as lightening, this is when your baby “drops” into position so they are positioned in the upper portion of the pelvis in preparation for delivery.
  • Increase in Braxton Hicks contractions. As your body prepares for labour, your uterus warms up for the intense upcoming workout with Braxton Hicks contractions. To differentiate between Braxton Hicks and real labour, look out for contractions that are getting stronger, regular, closer together and that do not stop or slow down for any period.
  • Increasing pressure in and around the pelvis and rectum.
  • Changes in vaginal discharge and/or a bloody “show” or mucous plug. This is different for every woman and may be watery, sticky or jelly-like in appearance. It can have a brown, pink or red tinge to it and may be as big as a 50 cent coin. The show may occur over a number of days, or sometimes you can lose your mucous plug up to two weeks before labour starts.
  • Bouts of diarrhoea. In the days leading up to your baby’s birth, production of prostaglandin will stimulate your bowels to open more frequently. You may experience diarrhoea, which is your body naturally emptying the bowels to make way for the baby.
  • Your membrane (your “water”) breaks when the amniotic sac surrounding your baby ruptures. It can result in a small amount of amniotic fluid trickling out, or a huge gush of liquid. Only around one in five mothers experiences their water breaking as the first sign of labour, so having a huge “water break” moment is not the common first sign of labour that Hollywood producers would have us believe!

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