The signs of early labour

In the third trimester, it’s undoubtedly becoming more and more of a reality that in a few weeks you’ll be welcoming a little human into the world.

While exciting, this can also be a scary thought. It’s common for women to worry about how they’re going to cope with the exhausting experience of childbirth. Often, the fear of pain and the thought of unexpectedly going into labour before being full term plays on the mind of many expectant mothers.

Knowing a bit more about what to expect and understanding exactly what’s going to happen to your body may help you to relax and be prepared just in case anything unusual happens.

The following is a quick look at the key signs of labour, why they happen, and when you should contact your doctor or midwife.

The ‘nesting’ instinct

Before beginning labour, it’s normal for some women to feel a rush of energy. You may find that you have a sudden urge to deep clean the house or refill your cupboards with several crucial provisions. This is known as the “nesting” instinct, and it’s seen all throughout nature. It’s simply your body telling you that you must get your home ready for your incoming baby.

Some mothers don’t experience the nesting instinct, but if you do, remember to take it easy on yourself. Just like with exercise, don’t push yourself too hard and completely exhaust yourself while running around getting things ready.

A show

Sometimes, before labour starts, the protective mucus plug that seals your cervix may come loose. The purpose of this mucus plug has been to protect the fetus and uterus by preventing bacteria from entering. When it comes away from the cervix and passes down the vagina, it may appear as a blob of pinkish mucus (it’s this colour because it normally contains a small amount of blood). It can come out as either one big blob or gradually in several pieces.

When a show happens, it’s a sign that the cervix has started to dilate and that labour is likely to follow soon.

Waters breaking

All through pregnancy your baby has been cushioned by the amniotic sac which is filled with fluid that he floats in. When the membranes of the amniotic sac rupture, this causes the fluid to leak out of your vagina. This can come as either a gush or a trickle of clear fluid.

For most women, their waters will break at any point during either the first or second stage of labour, at which point contractions will have already begun. However, sometimes the waters break before any other signs of labour.

Keep in mind that once your waters break, your baby no longer has protection against infection. This is why if your waters break early, you should call your midwife for guidance.

Although rare, it is possible for the membranes to rupture before 37 weeks. This is known as preterm pre-labour rupture of the membranes (PPROM) and it may trigger early labour. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ guidelines on PPROM say that, if your waters break early, then you’ll need to go into hospital for at least 48 hours. A doctor will examine you and closely monitor your baby.

It’s likely you’ll be able to go home again if no further signs of labour occur, but you’ll be advised to stay vigilant for signs of infection and to take extra precautions, such as abstaining from sex. There are also treatment methods, such as antibiotics and steroid injections, to help reduce the risk of infection.


Braxton Hicks contractions are essentially practise contractions. They occur when the muscles of the uterus tighten – think of this as your body gearing up for labour. Braxton Hicks contractions can be felt as early as the second trimester, but will only be light and quite far apart at this stage (some women may not even notice them). However, they are much more commonly felt in the third trimester.

Before labour, Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular, infrequent, and non-rhythmic. But when labour approaches, the contractions become far more frequent, last longer, and become much more painful. During these contractions, you’re likely to feel lower back pain or what feels like period pain.

Having regular, painful contractions that last more than 30 seconds each is a sign that labour may have started. According to the NHS, when contractions last 30-60 seconds and occur every five minutes, you should call your midwife for guidance. It may soon be time to go to the hospital.

Loose bowel movements

It’s also common for women to experience diarrhoea in early labour. This is thought to be because muscles loosen in preparation for childbirth. Plus, prostaglandins, the hormone that causes the uterus to contract and the cervix to dilate, can also be responsible for stimulating the bowels.

Having an upset stomach is nothing to worry about. Just make sure you drink enough water and that you stay near a bathroom (tripping in haste could be a real problem if you are ‘caught short’).

Nausea and vomiting

Some women feel sick as they go into early labour and some even vomit. This is quite usual. Keep hydrated and have a snack if you can face it to keep your energy levels up.

Be mindful of your body

Experiencing any of these signs is completely normal, and it’s good to be able to recognise them as expected parts of labour so that you’re not sent into a panic.

Speak to your doctor or midwife if you have any concerns that symptoms you’re experiencing are not as you expect. Medical professionals are likely to have heard it all before.

While it’s true some of these signs of early labour are a bit unpleasant, they can also be exciting because they mean you’re getting closer to finally being able to hold your baby in your arms for the first time.

Important – If you or your child are unwell you should seek medical advice from a professional – contact your GP or visit an A&E department in an emergency. While My BabyManual strives to provide dependable and trusted information on pregnancy and childcare 24/7 via our website pages, we cannot provide individual answers to specific healthcare questions.