This page looks at the way your body gets ready for labour and how you know labour is starting. The video below from East Kent Hospitals demonstrates the changes to the neck of your womb which happen in this early part of labour.

During the last days and weeks of your pregnancy, you may notice your baby getting lower and pressing on your bladder more, and perhaps making walking more tiring. On the other hand, this may give your lungs a little more space which can reduce breathlessness when active. A first baby is likely to move down and stay down, while if you’ve had a baby before there can be more movement.

Some women report ‘nesting’ behaviour in the days before labour starts when they have a sudden burst of energy to organise or make changes to the home. Others are happier to mostly rest. A grown baby, plus water, plus a placenta - it’s a lot to carry around.

You may have a ‘show’. This is where the jelly-like substance which has been plugging the neck of your womb starts to come away. You may notice a lump of mucus, which can be creamy, pale yellow, and streaked with red or brown blood. It’s not beautiful but can be exciting. After a show, it could still be a couple of weeks or more before your labour starts, but it’s part of the process.

Your digestive system may empty out. For some, the first sign will be loose bowels, and perhaps being sick. This can happen one or two days before labour starts. It’s important to keep eating and drinking as you need your energy. You probably want to avoid large meals and rich food at this point. Of course, you may be having these symptoms for other reasons, especially if you feel unwell. Call your midwife if you are concerned.

Labour can start in different ways, and just as every baby is unique, every labour will unfold slightly differently. There are three main signs that labour is starting:

You may notice tightenings in your bump

You are probably used to practice tightenings (Braxton Hicks) from the last few weeks. These are different. Early labour tightenings develop into longer, stronger and more regular labour contractions. Some women prefer to think of tightenings and contractions as surges or waves as this makes them easier to welcome. Early labour tightenings might be:

●    More like period cramps than anything you’ve felt in a while
●    Stronger than practice tightenings 
●    Lasting longer than practice tightenings
●    Coming predictably after a set amount of time 

You may find you need to stop what you’re doing when they come and just give yourself a moment. They might last a few seconds, or they might last half a minute or more. The gap between could be a few minutes, or it could be half an hour or even longer. Contraction tracker apps are useful to keep a note of the pattern.

Early labour tightenings will develop into long, strong, regular labour contractions but this can take up to a couple of days, especially with a first baby. It is also normal for the early labour tightenings to ease off.

This is not unusual, and the important thing is to remind yourself that it won’t last forever. Concentrate on saving your energy for when things do move to the next phase.

The waters may be released

In a film, mothers always seem to know instinctively when this is happening. In reality, you may be uncertain. The fluid may come out in a gush, or it is often a trickle. A gush makes it obvious, but with a trickle, it is much harder to know. Some women feel or hear a ‘pop’, while many don’t. Watery vaginal discharge is normal for many women in late pregnancy, which can make it harder to be sure.

You may get a backache

Early labour contractions sometimes feel more like waves of backache, and less like tightenings in the bump. This is more common when the baby’s back is lined up with your back, rather than curling into the front of your bump. Forward leaning positions are fantastic in early labour. You might want to be on your hands and knees for the contractions or sitting and leaning. A birth ball can be ideal, with something sturdy such as the back of the sofa in front of you to hold. If you feel tired, you can lie down on your side with your bump, tipped down towards the cushions or mattress.

Sometimes it is difficult to know if tightenings are early labour tightenings or just practice tightenings when they come and go for several days or more. It can be confusing and frustrating. 

It can be helpful to concentrate on eating healthily, occasional activity and lots of distraction. This might be chatting to friends, films, videos, podcasts, or whatever works for you. If you have been using hypnobirthing soundtracks, these can be very useful at this stage.

This video from East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust takes you through what happens in the early stages of labour.

When do we call a midwife