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How will I know if I'm in Labour?

27 Nov, 2023

When you’re pregnant with your first baby, it can be hard to imagine what labour might feel like.

Labour contractions feel different for everyone, and when you ask your friends and family you may get many different answers! In this article I will cover the signs that labour may be starting, how to know if you’re really in labour and when to head into hospital.

Remember that most babies do not arrive on their estimated due date. 37 – 42 weeks of pregnancy is considered full term, so your baby will probably arrive sometime during this period.

Preparing for labour

In the last few weeks of pregnancy, your body will start getting ready for labour. The hormone prostaglandin will help to soften the cervix so it can dilate more easily. Relaxing is a brilliant hormone that helps to soften the ligaments in the pelvis to create more space for your baby to move down.

Your baby’s head will also drop into the pelvis – this is referred to as engagement. For most women, their baby will engage before labour starts, but for some women, engagement may happen during labour. As your baby’s head descends you may notice more pressure in the pelvic area, and you may also feel like your baby is putting extra pressure on your bladder.

Before labour begins, many women notice some changes in their body such as:

Period-type cramps – crampy or tightening sensations that may wrap around to your back. For many women, their first contractions feel like mild period cramps.

Backache – this can be common in pregnancy, but if it is a new symptom for you, it may be a sign your body is getting ready for labour.

Mucous plug/birth show – during pregnancy mucous forms in the cervix to help prevent bacteria moving up into the womb. As the cervix softens this mucous may come away. You may notice it when you wipe after going to the toilet, or on your underwear. Some women don’t see their mucous plug until they’re in labour.

Diarrhoea – due to hormonal change you may experience loose stools in the day or two before labour begins. This is quite normal, however if you are feeling unwell please contact your care providers.

Waters breaking – For around 90% of women their waters will release when they are in labour (and often in the later stages when they are getting closer to birthing their baby). Some women notice a gush or trickle of fluid from the vagina before labour begins. Whether your waters break before or during labour it is important to contact your midwife or doctor.

Some women have no warning signs before labour begins and will only suspect that they may be in labour when they feel their first contraction.

What is the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and real labour?

Braxton Hicks refers to mini-contractions that some women experience before labour begins. They are often quite quick, and come and go irregularly with no defined pattern. The uterus or womb is essentially having a practice run, and Braxton Hicks are thought to help strengthen the uterus muscles and may also help to prepare the cervix for birth. While Braxton Hicks contractions can often be a little uncomfortable, they are a normal part of pregnancy.

In ‘real labour’, you will continue to notice those tightening sensations in the uterus, however, they will become closer together and start to follow a defined pattern. The sensations will come and go every few minutes. In active labour contractions are coming every 3-4 minutes. When timing contractions ensure to time from the start of one contraction to the start of the next one.

When should you contact your midwife or hospital?

  • If your waters break
  • If you have any bleeding
  • If you are having regular contractions (every five minutes or less) and would like to head into hospital
  • If your baby’s movement pattern changes
  • If you are concerned at any time.

When labour begins it can sometimes be tricky to work out if it is Braxton Hicks or the real deal. My biggest tip is to try and relax as much as possible – you will know soon enough!

Article written by PBC Expo Midwife

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