Early signs of labour

Here we look at the early signs of labour, such as Braxton Hicks contractions, preparing for birth and when to call your midwife.

This article covers the following topics:
What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

When should I call my midwife?

Getting ready for your due date

What can your birth partner do?

Further information

For up to a week before labour starts you may notice some (or none) of the following early signs of labour approaching:

  • Increased (clear) vaginal discharge.
  • Mucus plug discharge: the plug of mucus (‘show’) released from your cervix, perhaps with a streak of blood.
  • Feeling unusually energetic, such as a sudden urge to start cleaning the house (also known as the ‘nesting instinct’).
  • Frequent ‘practice’ contractions of the uterus, which feel like a hardening of the abdomen or backache, which are called Braxton Hicks contractions (see below).

If you're unsure of whether these really are early signs of labour approaching, you can always call your midwife.

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions are caused by the tightening of the muscles of the uterus (womb) in preparation for labour, which is why they are called practice contractions, and are usually painless. Women may begin to feel Braxton Hicks contractions around the middle of their pregnancy, although they tend to become more noticeable in late pregnancy.

Braxton Hicks symptoms come and go, and are sometimes not even noticeable. Women may, however, be aware of having one during or after sex as the hormone oxytocin that is produced with sexual arousal also causes the uterus to contract.

Sometimes midwives will describe a woman as being in 'false labour' when she experiences Braxton Hicks contractions. If you are unsure, your midwife can examine your cervix to see if it is showing signs of changing (softening and dilating).

When you are entering early labour, your contractions will become more frequent, rhythmic and longer, as the cervix starts to soften and open up (dilate). They will also build in intensity. You can read more about the first stage of labour here.

When should I call my midwife?

If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, call your midwife if you are having contractions and have:

  • a watery discharge or bloody vaginal discharge and/or
  • lower back pain or cramping.

These are signs that you may be going into premature labour.

After 37 weeks, call your doctor or midwife if:

  • you think your baby's movements have slowed down,
  • you think your waters have broken and/or
  • you have any bleeding.

From 36 weeks, it's a good idea to get ready for labour and the next section discusses some things to keep in mind.

Getting ready for your due date

As your due date approaches, you will have lots on your mind so it's a good idea to run through the following actions and make sure everything is ready:

  • Have your bag ready for hospital or your home maternity pack at hand from 36 weeks. Include some treats for yourself, such as your own pillows and cushions, snacks or music.
  • Consider having more than one birth partner to support you in labour.
  • Go through your birth plan with your birthing partner, making changes if you wish.
  • Practise your pelvic floor exercises and take some gentle exercise.
  • Consider protecting your bed with a plastic sheet or wearing a pad in case your waters go (although only 10% of labours start with waters breaking).

If you have any doubts about whether your labour is starting, give your midwife a call.

The build up to your due date can be exciting, stressful and tiring. Try and relax as much as you can in the last few weeks of pregnancy - once your baby arrives things will certainly get busier.

What can your birth partner do?

There will be things your birth partner can also do in the last few weeks to get ready for the birth, such as:

  • Keep a list of necessary telephone numbers including the community midwife and the labour ward.
  • Check the route to hospital, keep change for car park, or keep the number of a taxi company to hand.
  • Check whether mobile phones are allowed in the hospital or birth centre (if not, bring money for a phonecard or change).
  • Make sure camera and phone batteries are charged.

Most importantly, birth partners should try and be patient, calm and supportive. Listen to your partner – she is the one who knows best what she needs.

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.  We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

Dads who are birth partners might find our online guides for them useful.

NHS choices offers information on signs of labour.