Is this really labour?

Every pregnancy and labour is unique and there is no way to predict exactly when your labour will start. Saying that, there are some clues which may make you think your baby is preparing to meet you. Midwife Verona Hall explains all

Although hormones are thought to play a part in the process, no one knows what actually does trigger labour – which begins between 37 and 41+ weeks. Anything prior to that is considered to be pre-term labour.

Signs of Labour

1. Lightening

This is the time when your baby settles deep in your pelvis, engaging lower into their position for birth. For first-time mothers, this can happen a few weeks before birth - usually from 36 weeks. For second-timers it may take place days or even a few hours before labour begins.

2. The Show

This is like a thick or stringy clear discharge that you may pass in a clump into the toilet or your underwear. It can appear as slightly pink or bloody in colour and can occur as early as three weeks before, or just a few days before your labour starts. You could have a series of shows. However, not everyone has a show before labour starts

3. Rupture of Membranes

Not every baby’s waters rupture before labour and no-one knows what triggers the response, which can be a gush or a trickle. However, when the waters go, you do need to let your midwife know. The reason for this is that the risk of infection increases.

Once the waters break, most hospitals will give you 48 hours to go into labour yourself. The waters should be clear with a pinkish or blood stained colour. If the waters are brownish green, or green this is a sign that baby has had their bowels open and you should always contact your midwife or hospital. When the membranes rupture, not all the amniotic fluid is released and so you should not be alarmed if you continue to have a flow of water. This is usual when your baby moves or if you have a contraction.

4. Weight Loss

There can be a 2-3 pound weight loss, which is believed to be the result of the shift in body fluids.

5. Nesting Instinct

Most mothers get a burst of energy before the baby arrives, known as the nesting instinct. This does not necessarily mean that a mum-to-be will go around cleaning kitchen cupboards and floors! It can be anything from cleaning to making sure the filing is completed.

6. Change in baby’s activity

You may read in some books that your baby’s movements will decrease near to birth. This is not actually right; it’s not that their movements decrease, but more that the pattern changes. You should still be having 10 movements, but instead of them being like the kicks you are used to, it will probably be more like squirming and shuffling.

7. Consistent Uterine Contractions

Pre-labour contractions are more likely to be irregular; they do not increase in intensity or frequency. Contractions have a tendency to stop if you increase your activity or if you change position. Labour contractions that result in the birth of your baby are strong, rhythmic and become longer and stronger with a definite pattern. They can start off lasting 30 seconds, and then build up to between 60 and 90 seconds in duration. At the beginning they are felt as a pulling up sensation that results in changes to your cervix.

8. Effacement. (Thinning of the Cervix)

Your cervix -- the lower, narrow end of the uterus that protrudes into the vagina -- softens as it's preparing for labour. This process, known as "ripening" or effacement, usually begins during the last month of your pregnancy. The cervix starts off as a long tube of around 3-4 cms long, with the consistency like the end of your nose. As it effaces or thins out, the consistency becomes more like that of your lips.

9. Dilation

As your baby's birth-date approaches, your cervix begins to dilate or open up. Dilation is checked during a vaginal examination and measured in centimetres (cms), from 0 cms (no dilation) to 10 cms (fully dilated). Typically, if you're 3-4 cms dilated, you're in the active stage of labour; if you're fully dilated, you're ready to birth your baby.

10. Labour

You know you're in labour, so find out what happens next and read these coping strategies for birth. Read common questions about breastfeeding and learn baby signing basics.

Related links

I'm in labour, what happens now? Now you know the signs of labour, what do you do next? 

Water babies: Want to avoid using pain-relieving drugs during labour? It’s worth considering a water birth…

Natural Induction: Expert Verona Hall explains when it is safe to naturally induce labour, and how to do it.

Caesareans - get the facts to stay in control: Expert Obstetrician Meg Wilson has the essential facts.

Breastfeeding Q&A: expert solutions to common breastfeeding issues.

What's my baby trying to tell me? Learn the basics of baby signing for the pre-verbal stage.

Dad's View of Pregnancy and Childbirth: We chat with two men about their experience of first-time fatherhood.

Find out more

Verona Hall has her own website, which has advice and information about the services she offers.

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