Early signs of Labour

Early signs of labour

What is early labour?

Early labour, also known as the latent phase of labour, is a time when changes are starting to happen to your body in preparation for birthing your baby.

The production of hormones oxytocin and prostaglandins is stimulated as they are needed to encourage the changes to your cervix (neck to your womb). Your baby’s head is moving further down into your pelvis and pressing on many nerves in this area. Also, applying more pressure onto your bladder, particularly if it’s quite full. So you often feel the urge to go to the toilet for a wee more frequently. 

You start to experience irregular tightenings that feel like period type discomfort. The discomfort comes and goes and isn’t a consistent discomfort or pain. You might find that initially they come and go very irregularly and are variable in duration. If you start to experience backache this may also not be consistent. 

The length of time it takes for changes to occur during this phase is individual. It can be a few hours or sometimes a few days.

What are the signs of early labour?


Urge to go to toilet more frequently

Tightenings and contractions

Changes to your cervix (neck of your womb)

Your waters may break

You pass a “show” or mucous plug


You may have been experiencing lower back ache for some time before you go into labour. It’s not uncommon and is often caused by the hormones relaxin and progesterone. They relax the muscles and loosen ligaments and joints, especially in the pelvic area. The additional weight of your uterus carrying your baby and fluid also puts additional strain on those ligaments. Backache alone isn’t a sign of going into labour as it’s often accompanied with other signs.

Urge to wee more frequently

You’ve probably noticed that by now your trips to the ladies room are more frequent. Especially during the night. As your baby’s head has started to enter into the pelvis this applies pressure to your bladder, especially as it starts to become fuller. So you will find that you have less capacity and need to empty your bladder more frequently. Again,this alone isn’t a sign of the early stage of labour but it can be one of the signs along with others.

Tightenings or contractions?

Tightenings can feel similar to Braxton Hicks that you may have been experiencing for the past few weeks. The difference between tightenings and braxton hicks is that when you experience tightenings you often feel discomfort, a period type discomfort to begin with. Braxton Hicks tightenings should be painless, variable in duration and frequency. They also don’t cause any changes to be happening to your cervix.

Tightenings can start being irregular and variable in strength and duration. You’ll notice your bump starts to feel very tight and you’ll experience period type discomfort and possibly backache also. It’s very likely your body is starting to produce the hormones that are causing changes to happen to your cervix. If you are planning to use a TENS machine, now would be a good time to apply this. 

If you want to call and let your midwife or maternity unit know you can do so. Your midwife can then advise and discuss with you and if all is well, you may be encouraged to stay at home for a little while longer. Encouraged to rest as much as you can. Eat and drink little and often. It’s important to remain well hydrated and replenish energy. Try having a bath, always remember to remove your TENS machine before getting into the bath. 

The tightenings may come and then suddenly stop for a while. This is quite common. Then as they start to occur again you may find that the time in between is getting shorter and they are coming more frequently. When you’re experiencing tightenings very often you can still continue what you’re doing and not feel too bothered by them. It’s still very important that you keep a check on your baby’s movements during this time. Your baby’s regular movement pattern should remain the same. If you have any concerns about your baby’s movements, seek advice straight away.

When do tightenings become contractions?

As you start to experience tightenings more frequently and they are starting to become much more uncomfortable and lasting longer than 20-30 secs at a time, it’s likely that your body is producing more and more oxytocin which stimulates the production of prostaglandins.

Oxytocin is released from your pituitary gland and this continues to stimulate the muscles in your uterus to contract. Oxytocin production increases and continues to  stimulate prostaglandin production to encourage changes to your cervix.

Contractions start to become more painful. They tend to last at least 30-60 seconds in duration and are strong so you may notice that your bump feels very hard during a contraction. This is when it’s very unlikely that you can continue to keep doing something. You find that you need to stop, and breathe in and out heavily throughout the contraction until it eases and the pain subsides. You may notice that niggling backache lingers in between. Keep a check on how often the contractions are coming, how long they’re lasting, how they feel in terms of strength and discomfort. How you feel you are coping with them. Follow the advice you have been given by your midwife or maternity unit. 

If you’re planning a home birth and use of a pool, you may be advised to get the pool prepared if you haven’t already.

If you’re planning to try water as a form of pain relief, use a birthing pool in the hospital environment, sometimes trying a bath at home can give you some idea as to whether you like being in water when contracting or prefer to be upright and able to mobilise.

What Prostaglandins do and what changes to your cervix

take place?

The role of Prostaglandins is to help changes occur to your cervix during early labour/latent phase of labour. 

Before labour your cervix is a long, thick tube-like shape that’s quite hard and closed at both ends. The inner cervix end is closest to your uterus and this is where your mucus plug sits just inside to act as a protection to infection. The outer opening to your cervix is also closed. 

As your body starts to produce more prostaglandins and your uterus continues to experience regular tightenings leading to contractions, your cervix starts to change. Prostaglandins encourage your cervix to soften, shorten, become much thinner and open at both ends.

What is a “Show” or mucus plug?

The mucus plug forms in the neck of your womb or cervix during pregnancy and acts as a seal to help prevent bacteria entering your womb. Towards the end of pregnancy and closer to your due date you might start to notice a clear coloured, thick mucousy discharge from down below. It can be an indicator that some changes are starting to occur. Losing a mucousy plug doesn’t always mean you’re going into labour.

A “show” can look slightly different. This tends to be a mucousy discharge that appears pink in colour, may be a brownish/clear combination in colour or appear to have red blood mixed in with clear/pinkish mucus. This is often a sign that your cervix is starting to open, shorten, soften and dilate. If you are concerned about any discharge you’re experiencing or unsure, speak to your midwife or maternity unit for advice. Passing a show can be a sign that labour is likely to start within hours or a couple of days. Especially if you’re experiencing other signs and symptoms.

If you think your waters have gone

If you’re needing to go to the toilet more frequently and finding you may have leaked a little before making it there in time, consider putting on a pad. Very often you can determine that it is some wee that’s leaked. This isn’t uncommon, especially as your due date gets closer and you can’t move as quickly. Keep remembering to perform your pelvic floor exercises regularly.

However, if you think your waters have gone they don’t always go with a sudden gush that looks like a waterfall between your legs, like you might have seen in the movies. They can be quite subtle and you might notice you feel wet. But it doesn’t appear to be wee. Again, put on a pad and if it is very wet or continuing to trickle with no ability for you to control, call and speak to your midwife or maternity unit. 

If the watery loss is pink or appears to be a strange colour and not typical of wee colour, then call your midwife and get advice. If the watery loss has a strange smell that doesn’t smell like wee. Call for advice. 

If you are prior to 37 weeks pregnant and feel wet for no apparent reason, put on a pad and seek advice straight away.

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