Pre-labour and early labour is the first stage of the countdown to when true labour starts. For a first baby, this stage can last for many hours, even days, whereas in second and subsequent labours it tends to be much quicker. Here we look at the signs that indicate that labour is about to begin.
It can be difficult to tell when labour actually starts. Even if you’ve had a baby before there’s no guarantee that your next labour will be like the last one, or that the early signs will be the same.
There are a number of different signs that may indicate that the start of labour is not too far away. These can occur as much as a week or more before labour begins and include:
These early contractions help your cervix to go through the changes it needs to before it starts to dilate. You may experience contractions for a number of days as these early changes occur.
These initial contractions may be short and irregular and, unlike the contractions in ‘real’ labour they may not get stronger, longer or closer together.
Although they are not painful, they can be strong enough to stop you sleeping at night.
Pre-labour and early labour is known as the ‘latent phase’ of labour. During this phase you may experience some or all of the following:
Aches and pains. You may get persistent lower backache, or a dull throbbing pain similar to period cramping. This may come and go, or may be there all the time.
A show. This is a blood-tinged mucus ‘plug’ which is discharged from the vagina. The plug, which sealed the cervix to protect your baby from infection during your pregnancy, becomes dislodged as the cervix begins to soften. It may appear as one blob, or in several bits. Although a show usually means that labour will happen within a few days it doesn’t always; sometimes the mucus plug comes away a week or so before labour begins, and sometimes it doesn’t come away until active labour is well established.
Diarrhoea. Loose bowel movements or diarrhoea are very common during pre-labour. It’s the body’s way of clearing out the digestive system ready for the birth.
Waters breaking. This is when the amniotic sac, the bag of fluid your baby has been growing in, ruptures allowing the amniotic fluid to drain out through your vagina. This can happen as a slow trickle, or a sudden uncontrollable gush. Amniotic fluid is straw coloured and can be distinguished from urine because it is sweeter smelling. The medical term for your waters breaking is spontaneous rupture of the membranes (SROM). This can happen before any contractions start, or it can be delayed until much later in labour. If your waters break before labour has started phone your hospital or maternity unit for advice. Once your waters have broken, there is a risk of infection so if your contractions don’t start naturally within 24 hours labour may need to be induced.
Eventually your contractions will start to increase until they are coming about every 20-30 minutes and lasting 10-40 seconds.
Although things are progressing, there is still no need to go to the maternity unit or birth centre if you plan to have your baby in hospital. As a general rule, you won’t need to go to the hospital/birth centre until your contractions are lasting at least 45-60 seconds and coming every five minutes.
Wherever you plan to give birth, it will be easier for you to rest and relax at home during this stage. If you feel hungry you should continue to eat normally.
Drinking isotonic or sports drinks will boost your energy levels and help keep you hydrated. If you find it easier to be active, go for a stroll, or potter about at home.
Do try to get as much rest as you can, even if you can’t sleep, as this will help you to cope better with the second stage of labour.
A warm bath will relax you and using a TENS machine will help ease any discomfort. You may want to use this time to practise your breathing exercises and any relaxation techniques you plan on using.
If you are having your baby in hospital your doctor is likely to encourage you to stay at home until labour is well established.