All You Need to Know About Early Signs of Labour
For women who are nine months pregnant, virtually every physical feeling can elicit a panicked “Is this it??!?!?!” reaction. We are here to quell your nerves, and explain the early signs of labour (or pre-labour) that you need to call your doctor about, and what you can probably ignore.
Pre-labour, or, the early signs of labour include…
In the day or two before you go into labour, you may notice heightened anxiety, mood swings, weepiness, or a general sense of impatience. (This may be hard to distinguish from the usual 9-months-pregnant impatience, we know.) It can also manifest in extreme nesting. These may all be early signs of labour; your whole body is getting ready for the main event.
One of the first signs of labour is actually a familiar feeling: the pain that comes with menstrual cramps. If you’re starting to feel those diffuse discomfort and pain in the abdomen, it may be a sign that active labour is just a few hours away.
Intense lower back pain
Along with those seemingly familiar cramps is intense lower back pain. Sure, the final weeks of carrying around a giant human (and its liquid sustenance sac) make your back permanently sore, but this is different level of pain. And for people who experience it, it usually starts at the same time as the cramps.
Another sign that your baby might be ready to start the process of shimmying down the birth canal is light spotting or slightly brown or pink discharge. This happens because the cervix is shortening and the tissue is thinning to prepare for your baby’s exit from the womb. (You may have heard the term “bloody show”? This is it.) You may even be so lucky as to pass a “mucus plug,” which is just what it sounds like, and which was blocking the opening of the cervix to protect against infection. Once that plug comes off, it’s a clear sign that the baby is ready to come out.
(Don’t confuse light spotting or brown discharge with actual bleeding — if you see a flow if blood, that’s something you need to call your doctor about.)
A few hours before labour begins, you may also feel some digestive discomfort, and even have diarrhea. This upset stomach is your body’s (clever) way of preparing you for delivery (by evacuating anything that might get in the way).
Contrary to what movies tell us, this rarely occurs to women as a sudden deluge while they’re standing in the supermarket; the vast majority of women experience labour without their water ever breaking at home or in a public place. (It usually happens when you’re already at the hospital.) But, for the women who do experience some version of the rupturing of the membranes before they get to the hospital, this can be a trickle of clear liquid. (Some women wake up thinking they’ve wet the bed!)
If you experience any form of water breaking, call your doctor. Because this is a sign that the amniotic sac has ruptured, you may be more susceptible to infection after it happens; depending on your medical history and pregnancy, your doctor may want to see you, or ask you to come to the hospital, after this happens.
Finally, probably the clearest sign that you’re in labour is regular contractions. You’ll know you’re experiencing contractions because they escalate. Over time, these signs of labour will get stronger (read: more painful), and they will become more frequent. If you notice there’s a pattern, you’re definitely in labour. Advice varies on what stage of process requires you to be at the hospital (or seen by a midwife or other birthing support professional), so seek advice from your doctor or midwife about how close your contractions should be when you make that call (and get moving).
You’ve probably heard about the fakeout called Braxton Hicks contractions. These are not signs of labour — they are thought to be part of the way the body is preparing for labour. The main difference between Braxton Hicks and “real” labour contractions is that Braxton Hicks are not as painful; they are not steady, consistent, and escalating; and finally, they occur mainly around your belly (it looks/feels almost like the area around your belly tightens) rather than an overall sensation around your abdomen. But most important to remember: Braxton Hicks contractions go away eventually, they don’t get worse.
You can read more about what to expect in the delivery room here.
And our delivery room bill of rights is an essential guide for knowing what your rights are, and how to advocate for them.