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Pregnancy and baby

Signs that labour has begun

How will I know I am in labour?

Media last reviewed: 03/01/2017

Next review due: 03/01/2020

Know the signs

You're likely to recognise the signs of labour when the time comes, but if you're in any doubt, don't hesitate to contact your midwife.

The main signs of labour starting are strong, regular contractions and a "show". A show is when the plug of mucus from your cervix comes away.

Other signs that labour is beginning include your waters breaking (rupture of the membranes), backache and an urge to go to the toilet, which is caused by your baby's head pressing on your bowel.

What are contractions like?

When you have a contraction, your womb (uterus) tightens and then relaxes, like a stronger version of period pains.

You may have had contractions throughout your pregnancy, particularly towards the end. During pregnancy, these painless tightenings are called Braxton Hicks contractions.

When you're having regular, painful contractions that feel stronger and last more than 30 seconds, labour may have started. As labour gets going, your contractions tend to become longer, stronger and more frequent.

During a contraction, the muscles in your womb contract and the pain increases. If you put your hand on your abdomen, you'll feel it getting harder. When the muscles relax, the pain fades and your hand will feel the hardness ease.

The contractions are pushing your baby down and opening the entrance to your womb (the cervix), ready for your baby to go through.

Your midwife will probably advise you to stay at home until your contractions become frequent. 

When your contractions last 30-60 seconds and occur every five minutes, call your midwife for guidance. If you're planning to have your baby in a maternity ward, phone the hospital.

Here's more information on when to go to hospital.

Backache often comes on in labour

You may get backache or the aching, heavy feeling that some women experience with their monthly period.

A 'show' signals the start of labour

While you're pregnant, a plug of mucus is present in your cervix. Just before labour starts or in early labour, the plug comes away and you may pass this out of your vagina. This small amount of sticky, jelly-like pink mucus is called a show.

It may come away in one blob, or in several pieces. It's pink in colour because it's bloodstained, and it's normal to lose a small amount of blood mixed with mucus. 

If you're losing more blood, it may be a sign something is wrong, so phone your hospital or midwife straight away.

A show indicates the cervix is starting to open and labour may follow quickly, or it may take a few days. Some women don't have a show.

What happens when your waters break?

Most women's waters break during labour, but it can also happen before labour starts. Your unborn baby develops and grows inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac.

When it's time for your baby to be born, the sac breaks and the amniotic fluid drains out through your vagina. This is your waters breaking.

You may feel a slow trickle or a sudden gush of water you can't control. To prepare for this, you could keep a sanitary towel (but not a tampon) handy if you're going out, and put a protective sheet on your bed.

Amniotic fluid is clear and a pale straw colour. Sometimes it's difficult to tell amniotic fluid from urine. When your waters break, the water may be a little bloodstained to begin with.

Tell your midwife immediately if the waters are smelly or coloured, or if you're losing blood, as this could mean you and your baby require urgent attention.

If your waters break before labour starts, phone your midwife or the hospital for advice. Without amniotic fluid, your baby is no longer protected and there's a risk of infection.

How to cope when labour begins

At the beginning of labour, you can:

  • walk or move about if you feel like it
  • drink fluids, and you may find sports drinks help keep your energy levels up
  • have a snack, although many women don't feel very hungry and some feel sick
  • try relaxation and breathing exercises as the contractions get stronger and more painful – your birth partner can help by doing these with you
  • have your birth partner rub your back, as it can help relieve pain

Find out what happens during the actual birth.

Page last reviewed: 19/01/2015

Next review due: 30/10/2017

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What happens during labour

What to expect during labour and when your baby is born, including coping with contractions and how your baby is monitored

When to go to hospital

When to call the midwife and what to expect, including examinations and what the delivery rooms are like

Pain relief in labour

Techniques to help you cope, including relaxation, gas and air, a birthing pool, or epidural

What your birth partner can do

Practical and emotional ways that your birth partner can help you during labour

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