Your due date is fast approaching, you're feeling excited and nervous, but how will you know for sure when labour is actually starting?
Early labour is when the uterus starts to contract, and the cervix - which is the neck of the womb - softens, thins and dilates. Once the cervix is 3cm to 4cm dilated, you're in established labour.
However, because every woman is different, the first signs can vary, as midwife Lorna Bird explains. ‘The early stage, where you may have a "show", your waters may break or you have contractions, can last a couple of days for a first baby, although it's usually quicker for a second,' she says. ‘It can also stop and start, so it's important to eat, sleep and rest when you can.' Here we take you through the main signs, and three mums share their experiences.
You have a ‘show'
A clear plug of mucus has corked your cervix during your pregnancy and as your cervix softens and thins, the plug comes free. This ‘show' is the most common early sign of labour. ‘It can happen on the day of labour, or up to a couple of weeks before,' says Lorna. ‘Some women notice a bit of mucus in their pants and may not realise it's a show. It may be tinged with old blood. If the blood is bright red or greenish, call the hospital straight away. Otherwise, make a note of when it occurred and tell your midwife at your next appointment.'
Your waters break
A leak or gush of waters is the first sign for about 15% of women. Amniotic fluid is a pale, straw-coloured liquid and smells sweet. If you're bleeding or the water isn't clear, go straight to hospital.
‘If your waters break, call the hospital to let them know. You may need to go in for an examination and have a swab taken to rule out infection,' says Lorna. ‘Contractions usually start within 24 to 48 hours.'
You have regular contractions
These start as period-type pains, building in intensity. Unlike contractions in active labour, early contractions don't have a regular pattern and can go on for days.
‘Many women are disappointed to find they're not in established labour, despite having painful contractions,' says Lorna. ‘Quite often with a first baby, women will make their way into hospital, thinking they're in labour, and then as soon as they get to the ward, the contractions stop.
‘Contractions are not considered regular until they come every three to five minutes and last longer than a minute. If you think you're in labour, phone the midwife for advice, but the longer you can stay at home, the better. The key thing is to try to wait until you've been contracting regularly for a few hours, rather than rush into hospital with the first contraction.'
Is it a false alarm?
Not all contractions are the real thing. Braxton Hicks are practice contractions, which can happen any time after 20 weeks, although it’s more common for them to occur in late pregnancy.
During a Braxton Hicks contraction your bump will tighten and feel rock hard, tensing for up to 30 seconds. The contractions are irregular and don’t increase in frequency or severity.
‘Braxton Hicks usually happen in the last few weeks of pregnancy as the womb gets ready for labour,’ says Lorna. ‘They’re not painful but they’ll take your breath away.’
To share experiences with other users whose babies are due this month click here.