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How will I know I’m in labour?

We all know the term labour I’m sure: the active process of delivering a baby, and I’m pretty certain now you’re pregnant you’ve heard lots of labour and birth stories, maybe some being more unsettling for you than reassuring!

Written by Lara Taylor, Specialist Midwife

We all know the term labour I’m sure: the active process of delivering a baby, and I’m pretty certain now you’re pregnant you’ve heard lots of labour and birth stories, maybe some being more unsettling for you than reassuring!

So because of that, the thought of labouring may be worrying you and you may be experiencing mixed emotions: excited for this new chapter in your life and looking forward to meeting your baby, but also a little anxious about the birthing process with lots of questions like ‘How will I know I’m in labour?’, ‘How will my body know what to do?’ or ‘How long will it take?’
Firstly, our birthing experiences are individual to us, just as our bodies are unique, with lots of different factors coming into play to determine how it progresses. I’m a great believer however, that the more we learn and know about our body during this process, the more at ease we will be. My hope is that with sharing my experience and knowledge relating to those early signs of labour, will help you to embrace the process, feel in control as well as give you tools to make it as positive as possible.

I do love sharing this information with the ladies in my care, I love to educate of course, but I also love to see a sense of reassurance and relief, as they realise their capabilities. And as I’ve said before, Knowledge is power!

How Does Our Body Know When It’s Time To Give Birth?

A baby can come anytime between 37 and 42 weeks, (this is classed as class as full-term pregnancy) with only around 5% of babies actually coming on their due date. The start of labour is a pretty mysterious thing to be honest, and the magical thing is that we believe it’s your baby who triggers this process, releasing a small amount of a protein that sends a signal to the mother’s hormones to start labour. The body has a lot of work to do and getting the body ready to birth is a very gradual and intricate process…it’s definitely not an overnight thing and can literally take days, even weeks. Some of you may not even notice the preparation has started and it really does depend on your body, your health and wellbeing, and whether you’ve had a baby before.

Signs That Your Body Is Preparing For Labour.

Let’s first look at Braxton Hicks, known as practice or false contractions and usually noticed in your second or third trimester. You will experience a tightening feeling over your bump as the muscles shorten, and even though they are generally painless, you may experience different levels of discomfort. They are thought to help the body prepare for labour and will happen infrequently and be totally unpredictable! They often varying in length and strength and will generally disappear as quickly as they arrived, and it’s important to remember that Braxton Hicks are not a sign that true labour has started, or is about to begin.

From my experience, it can also be an indication that you have maybe exerted yourself a little too much or are dehydrated. Your body’s way of telling you to rest up! 
You may find towards the end of the third trimester you have a burst of energy, known as the ‘nesting instinct’. A time when we may feel the need to clean everything in sight and organise everything at home. It’s only natural that you’ll want to prepare your home for welcoming your baby...and it’s a really good time to get your hospital bag packed too! On the other hand, you may feel extremely fatigued, your body may want to slow right down and sleep, conserving energy for labour and birth. Our body’s will do what’s right for us and our baby, so listen to it intently and go with it. 

As your body moves closer to birthing you may notice your joints are starting to feel more relaxed and you may even start to feel aching or cramping in your lower back area and hips, particularly if you’ve had a baby before. Now this is because the body produces one last surge of the hormone ‘Relaxin’, which not only softens and widens the cervix but also relaxes the muscles and ligaments in your pelvis a little more. This enables the pelvis to widen, aiding the baby’s head to move lower into the pelvis, it’s known as ‘lightening’ and typically happens within the last 2 weeks of pregnancy. Now you may notice a lightness around your ribs and feel you can breathe a little easier, you may even notice the dreaded heartburn has subsided...all great things, right! They are, but you may also feel a little more pressure down below and a need to pop to the toilet more frequently, as your baby’s head presses on your bladder. Of course, you may not actually notice these changes at all, it’s a gradual thing, especially for first babies, but listen out for those comments from family and friends that have noticed ‘your bump has dropped’!!

When Will I Know That Labour Is Actually Starting? 

There are many signs that could indicate labour is starting, but the most important thing to know is that the early stages of labour can actually last a few days, or even weeks! That’s because the body has such a lot of work to do, to get us to the point of being in ‘active’ labour.

The cervix

The uterus is relaxing and the cervix, which is a muscular, funnel-like organ, has to move position, soften, shorten, thin out and open. Yes, that much work!! And while we’re talking about the cervix, I just want to say, don’t be too obsessed with your dilation, especially in the early stages. Although it’s clinically seen as a measure of progress, remember we’re all very different and will progress and dilate at different rates, so please don’t be discouraged if you’re dilating slowly or not at all. 

The ‘show’ or mucous plug

A sign that labour may be close, is noticing a thick, mucous discharge in your underwear or when wiping. You might have heard it being referred to as ‘having a show’. This is your mucous plug and can appear as a jelly like consistency, either clear, pink, brown or bloodstained. Its job in pregnancy is to sit in the cervical canal, protecting the uterus and your baby from infection. So, the fact you have released this is a sign that your cervix has started to move, although some will lose their mucous plug a little later on.

Clearing out

Another sign that labour has started is going to the toilet more frequently and in particular opening your bowels. You may notice that you are passing softer diarrhoea type stools, but don’t worry…it’s just your body ‘clearing out’ making sure baby has as much room as possible. Oh, and you may poo in labour too!! And again it’s perfectly common, with baby’s head pushing on your bowels and to be honest, you might not even notice…and your Midwife certainly won’t be worried!

  • Waters breaking

    You will already know that your baby grows inside a bag of fluid, known as the amniotic sac and so of course it’s going to have to break at some point for the baby to be born. Now this can happen naturally at the very start of labour or just before baby is born. It can come alongside labour pain, or it can happen on its own with no other symptoms of labour.  Now there’s a high probability that it won’t be like the movies with a sudden gush of water and the baby appears right after!! You may feel a gush, or you may feel a slow trickle, either way, make sure you pop a Lil-Lets maternity pad on and let your birth provider or midwife know, as once your water has broken the risk of infection to baby does increase. It should appear clear or a straw like colour, a little like urine, and yes, it’s common to not know the difference between the two at times. However, if you notice the water is brown in colour, and is smelly, it’s very important that you share this information with your care provider, as it can be a sign that you and your baby need urgent help.

    Lara’s Top Tip: - in the last few weeks of pregnancy, consider wearing a Lil-Lets Maternity Pantyliner, to help protect your underwear from the increase in discharge that is preventing bacteria from entering the uterus, and just in case those waters break when you are out and about, keep a Lil-Lets Maternity pad in your bag handy in case of that gush!

Shutterstock 1575947293 Contractions


We’ve already mentioned Braxton Hicks and those tummy muscles tightening and relaxing infrequently. Now with ‘true’ contractions or surges, they tend to be more 'wave like', increasing gradually, then becoming increasingly more frequent and lasting longer, and they’ll definitely start to feel more intense as your labour progresses.

To start with contractions may feel like period pains, or cramps, and you may feel it in your lower back or at the bottom of your tummy, gradually moving up higher, with the pain becoming more regular and more intense as labour progresses. If you pop your hand on your tummy, you will be able to feel the pain increasing with the tightening of the muscles and then fade as those muscles relax. They’re working with the help of Oxytocin, the main hormone responsible for stimulating contractions (and co-incidentally the hormone that starts production of breast milk!). 

Lara’s tips for early labour 

  • Sleep and rest when you can - save your energy for active labour and birth.  
  • Move around the house or go for a little walk outside ** 
  • Use a birthing ball and try different upright positions, being mindful to keep your pelvis open, giving baby room to move down. ** 
  • Take a warm bath or shower - water is great for relaxing and pain relief. 
  • Use a hot water bottle on your lower back. 
  • Practise your deep breathing - in through your nose and out through your mouth, as it will keep oxygen flowing to the muscles that are contracting.  
  • Stay hydrated and nourished - keep the snacks going. 
  • Go to the toilet regularly - having an empty bladder means more room for baby. 
  • Keep calm and relaxed - pop your favourite music on, use lavender essential oils, listen to a meditation recording, watch a funny film. All of this will help you boost those Oxytocin levels too! 
  • Try not to count those contractions early on. You’ll be aware of your progress without thinking about it so wait until they are more consistent.

** Women who use upright positions and are mobile during labour have shorter labours, receive less
intervention, report less severe pain, and describe more satisfaction with their childbirth experience than women in reclining positions.

Above all, listen to your body and trust your instincts. Do what feels right for you and please never compare yours’ to anyone else labour experience. Our minds are so powerful and having knowledge about the process of childbirth, and belief that this is a natural process we were made for, can really help influence our birth experience.

It’s about building trust in your body and its capabilities and having a strong support network to help you through. But one thing is absolutely for sure, it’s definitely a labour of love. ♥

When To Call Your Midwife Or Maternity Unit Immediately.  

  • Signs of Pre-eclampsia: Frontal headache, visual disturbances, swelling to hands feet or face, pain just below the ribs, vomiting. 
  • You have vaginal bleeding. 
  • If you think you’re in labour and have a history of a very fast birth. 
  • Your waters have broken, and you notice it’s smelly and brown in colour.  
  • Your baby is moving less than usual. 
  • You’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and think you might be in labour.

Information and Resources 

Signs that labour has begun - NHS 
Symptoms & Early Signs Of Labour | Tommy's  


Priddis H., Dahlen H., Schmied V. (2012). What are the facilitators, inhibitors, and implications of
birth positions? A review of the literature. Women and Birth, 25(3), 100–106.

Maternity Hospital Bag Checklist

About the

Lara Taylor, Registered Midwife BSc Hons

Independent Specialist Midwife and NHS Midwife, Educator and Trainer.
Specialist knowledge in Pregnancy loss, Teenage
pregnancy, Safeguarding, Mental Health, Fertility
and baby brain development.

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