Am I in labour?

By Mater Mothers' Hospital

As you enter the final stages of your pregnancy, your body will give signs that labour is approaching.     

The following information should help you to understand these signs and make it easier for you to determine whether you are in labour.

Some of the signs and symptoms of going into labour may include:

  • Period-like cramps
  • Gush or trickle of water as the membranes break
  • Diarrhoea
  • Backache
  • Mucous discharge or ‘show’
  • Contractions

Engagement

As you move closer to delivery, your baby’s head may drop and become engaged in your pelvis in preparation for labour. If you are expecting your first baby, you may notice pressure in your groin and on your bladder beginning up to four weeks before the birth. You may also notice that you can breathe a little easier and have a little more appetite as your baby drops, and is not pushed up against your diaphragm and stomach quite so much. This is sometimes known as ‘lightening’, as women generally feel lighter.

Show

During your pregnancy a mucous plug fills your cervix. Towards the end of pregnancy, the cervix becomes softer and this mucous plug may become loosened and start to come away.

The process of discharging this mucous is called a ‘show’ and might often contain streaks of blood or may also be brownish in colour. This is different from any flow of fresh blood which you would report immediately to your doctor or the hospital. The show may continue over a period of hours or even days. It is one of the signs that your body is preparing for birth. Labour may begin in the next few days, hours or weeks following a show.

There is no need to phone the hospital if you have had a show.

Water breaking (rupture of membranes)

This may occur at any time prior to the start of labour, or at any time during labour. The break may be low, near the opening of the uterus, and will produce a gush of amniotic fluid. If this occurs, place a sanitary pad on and note the colour of the fluid. Ring the hospital and tell the midwife that this has occurred. You will usually be asked to come in to the hospital.

Another type of amniotic fluid leak may occur higher up in the amniotic sack, or top of the uterus. This will be less obvious to you and you may only notice a trickle of fluid. Since many women have a heavy vaginal discharge or leak a small amount of urine towards the end of their pregnancy and it is often difficult to tell the difference. Urine is often yellow, where amniotic fluid is usually clear, or has a pink tinge, and has a ‘sweet’ odour. If you are unsure, ring the hospital.

If the colour of the fluid is green or brownish, it indicates that your baby has passed a bowel motion (meconium) inside the uterus. It is very common to have meconium-stained amniotic fluid in a pregnancy over 41 weeks, but this may also be a sign that your baby is distressed. You will need to ring the hospital immediately and then come into the hospital.

Braxton Hicks contractions

Braxton Hicks contractions are sometimes mistaken for labour. These ‘practice’ contractions usually start halfway through the pregnancy and continue right through to the end. These contractions are often irregular and can be uncomfortable and tight. Braxton Hicks contractions usually increase in regularity and strength towards the end of your pregnancy, preparing your uterus for the birth. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between these Braxton Hicks contractions and labour contractions. Below are the common differences between the two.

Labour contractions

True labour contractions usually increase in strength and duration. In order to time your contractions, time the interval between the start of one contraction to the start of the next. Early labour contractions are often likened to period cramps with or without backache.

Braxton Hicks contractions

Labour contractions

  • Usually irregular and short
  • Become regular with time
  • Do no get closer together
  • Get closer together with time
  • Do no get stronger
  • Become stronger
  • Walking does not make them stronger
  • Walking makes them stronger
  • Lying down may make them go away
  • Lying down does not mak them go away
  • Uncomfortable and tight - no painful
  • Painful

How does labour start?

Labour can start in different ways. You may be start experiencing some period like pains or contractions. You might notice that these  tightenings/contractions start to get stronger, closer and last longer than before. Or you might start with some back ache or a stomach upset that gets stronger and develops into regular contractions. In approximately 10 – 15% of women, labour will start when your membranes rupture. Contractions usually follow.

Should I call the hospital?

You should call the hospital when:

  • Your waters break
  • You have bright blood loss
  • Your contractions are regular and five minutes apart
  • You are ready to come into hospital

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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