Letitia Quaresimin

The early labour signs you might not know about. Are you in labour? Here’s how to tell with 6 signs


Is today the day? That’s the question most mummas in their third trimester ask themselves. Not knowing when your body will go into labour is like being at the airport with a plane ticket, but not knowing the departure time. Cue endless waiting and nervous guessing!

We asked midwife, Kelly Austin, for her help in understanding labour from the earliest signs so you can have a calm, positive birth experience.


As a midwife, one of the most common questions I get asked is ‘How will I know if I’m in labour?’

In short, my response is usually… ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’ll know!’ But in reality, it’s a very valid question and it can be a genuine worry in the later stages of pregnancy.

Luckily, there are a lot of signs that give a good indication of early labour and moving closer to that beautiful moment when you’ll meet you baby for the very first time. However, it’s important to remember that all women experience and interpret these signs differently so trusting your instincts is key.

The Stages of Labour

Before we even arrive at ‘The Day’ the signs and changes have been happening whether you have noticed them or not. That’s because there are actually three stages of the labour process – Latent, Active and Transition.

The latent stage of labour can last for weeks, days or hours. In the weeks and days leading up to labour our bodies are surging with hormones, telling the body to begin the preparations for labour.

Before the cervix can reach full dilatation, it needs to soften, shorten and re-orientate. Our cervix sits posterior during pregnancy, meaning that it angles itself to the back of the body as a protective mechanism to limit exposure to bacteria and infection. The cervix is thick and around 3cms in length prior to the body preparing for labour.

In the early stages of labour, even in the weeks before labour, the cervix begins to move forward to an anterior position, it shortens from 3-4cms down to almost paper thin and finally as it shortens it becomes soft and malleable.  All of this starts to happen before we are in active labour. This process can take days or hours, but you may not realise this is even happening.

Signs to look out for

While some of the signs of early labour are hard to feel, there are six common signs to look out for.

Braxton Hicks - Braxton hicks or ‘practice contractions’ can begin as early as 30 weeks, but this is more likely the case for women having their 2nd or 3rd baby. They are essentially the body practicing the contraction of the uterus in preparation for labour. Some women barely notice them and some women find them quite intense; the important thing to know is that these contractions are not strong enough to dilate or effect the cervix, but if you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks and feel they may be progressing into labour contractions, contact your maternity care provider.

Period pain and back ache – During the early stages, some women can experience cramps, but these are tricky to interpret as they can also feel similar to the dull ache women experience due to stretching ligaments. Just like period pain some women may experience a lower back ache as well.

Show or mucous plug – One way to tell that this process has started is the presence of a ‘show’. The show is commonly referred to as the mucous plug because there is a thick mucous discharge our body produces to ‘plug’ the end of the cervix as a protective measure against infection. As the cervix ‘ripens’ (shortens, softens and re-orientates) this plug can be dislodged, in most cases you’ll notice this when you go to the toilet.

Waters breaking – Breaking your waters, membrane release, spontaneous rupture of membranes… it goes by a few names and believe me, in a majority of cases it’s nowhere near as dramatic and exciting as in the movies! In a lot of cases women don’t notice straight away, it can feel like a leak or constant trickle of fluid. For most women, their waters don’t break until they are in active labour and some will even stay intact until the 2nd stage of labour when they are birthing their baby.

Diarrhoea and loss of appetite – Our digestive system also plays a role! I’ll seize this opportunity to jump forward to birth and answer one of the things that so many women seem to ruminate on in the lead up to birth ‘Will I poo?!’

If you do, it’s such a minimal amount it’s basically negligible! Your body actually plans for this. In majority of cases women will experience diarrhea type symptoms in the 24-48hrs before labour commences as the body doesn’t want to focus on digestion while it’s birthing. Often after this has happened women experience a decrease in their appetite. If this happens, don’t force feed yourself, keep your fluids up and have small, nutrient dense snacks.

Contractions – This seems like an obvious one but it’s such a subjective sensation, so the big decider when it comes to assessing your contractions and if they are ‘the real deal’ is simple. Contractions that are truly progressing you through labour will become stronger in intensity, longer in duration and will increase in frequency. It is recommended to contact your maternity care provider when you are experiencing contractions that are lasting between 45-60 seconds and occurring at a rate of 2-3 in a 10-minute window.

The most important thing to remember no matter what, is that your maternity care provider, whoever it may be will never be bothered by you calling to tell them what is going on or to ask questions. If you’re ever in doubt, always reach out. You and your baby’s health are their number one priority.


Do have a topic you’d like us to address? Email us, we’d love to hear from you!


Photo credit @douladianne

Tags: Trimester 3

Leave a comment