Labour and birth

Signs of labour

7 min read

How do you tell Braxton Hicks contractions from the real deal and what should you do if your waters break? We explain the signs of labour to look out for – and what to do next.

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Contrary to what’s usually shown in films, early labour is often a very slow and gradual process, and it’s not always clear if you’re actually in labour or if your body’s just gearing up for birth with practice contractions.

Find out how to tell if you’re experiencing the first signs of labour and what to do if you are – from monitoring your early contractions to contacting your midwife.

What are the early signs of labour?

Labour can start in many different ways and every birth is different – so even if you’ve already had a baby, your second labour could be completely different from your first.

Some of the most common first signs that your baby is on its way are:

  • you’re having painful contractions
  • your waters break
  • you have a ‘show’ (when the mucus plug comes away from your cervix)
  • you experience backache or period-like pains
  • you have a strong urge to go to the toilet.

Early labour may last some time, or your labour could progress quickly. It’s a good idea to have your maternity bag packed and ready well in advance of your due date so there’s one less thing to worry about when the time comes.


What do contractions feel like?

Your womb is one big muscle, and when you get a contraction it tightens up. Having a contraction can feel like someone giving you a really tight hug and if you touch your bump during a contraction, it feels rock hard. After the contraction, the muscles will relax again. Contractions are also painful, like very strong period pain.

In the first stage of labour, contractions push your baby downwards, helping your cervix open up ready for birth.

How can I monitor contractions?

Monitoring your contractions is the easiest way to see how close you are to being in established labour. Keeping track of contractions can be a good activity for your birth partner to be in charge of, so you can focus on managing the pain.

You can either use a pen, paper and a watch, or one of the many apps or websites that are available to help you time contractions. Whichever tools you use, there are just two things to note down:

  1. the time the contraction starts
  2. the time the contractions ends

Once you have noted down a few contractions, you or your birth partner can calculate:

  • the duration of each contraction – the time between the contraction starting and it ending.
  • how close together the contractions are – by checking how many minutes there are between the start time of the contractions.

How can I tell the difference between Braxton Hicks and real labour contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions can be an uncomfortable symptom in the second half of your pregnancy. These ‘false’ contractions are your womb’s way of practising before the birth, but they don’t mean that you’re going into labour yet.

Just like with contractions when you are in labour, your uterus tightens and then relaxes when you have a Braxton Hicks contraction. However, there are some differences between Braxton Hicks and labour contractions that can help you identify if you are about to give birth.

Braxton Hicks or labour contractions know the difference

What should I do if my waters break?

First, put on a maternity pad so you can collect any leaking fluid. Your midwife may want to take a look to check that it is amniotic fluid and that there’s no meconium in the water. Then, call your midwife or maternity unit to see what you should do next.

If your waters break before you go into labour, there’s a 60% chance you’ll go into labour spontaneously within 24 hours, but your midwife may want to monitor your temperature and the baby’s movements in the meantime to make sure that you’re both doing OK and aren’t developing an infection.

If your labour doesn’t start on its own, your midwife will talk to you about your options for having an induction, as the risk of infection to the baby increases the longer your waters have been broken.

How do I know if my waters have broken?

In most cases, you’ll probably know when your waters break as there’s a gush of warm water. Some women also report hearing a bit of a ‘pop’ when it happens.

However, it’s also possible for your waters to break only partially, with water coming out very slowly, and it can then be hard to know for sure if your waters have broken.

If you suspect you may be leaking water, it’s always best to have a midwife or doctor check you over so you can get the care you need.

When should I call the midwife?

At your antenatal appointments, your midwife will talk to you about when you should call them or when to travel to the hospital or birth centre once labour has started. There are a few cases where you should contact your midwife immediately to get advice:

  • if you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant
  • if your waters break before labour starts
  • if you have vaginal bleeding
  • if your baby is moving less than usual.

Otherwise, the general rule of thumb is that it’s time to contact health care professionals when you’re in established labour. This is usually when you have contractions that last 60 seconds each and come every five minutes.

When you go to the maternity unit, you’ll be assessed in triage by a midwife. If you’re found to be in early labour, you’ll most likely be given the advice to go back home to wait for your labour to become established before you’re admitted to the labour ward or birth centre.

You can look up your local hospital with our Birth Choice tool to see what they offer to women in the early stages of labour, as it does vary between different areas.


What should I do if I’m going into labour early?

If you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and suspect you’re going into labour, it’s important to call your midwife or maternity unit triage straight away as you need to be assessed.

In some cases, it’s possible to stop or delay early labour medically to give your baby more time to develop in the womb. If your baby is born early, it’s important you’re at a hospital that has the right facilities to look after premature babies.

When will I go into labour?

It’s impossible to say when exactly your baby will be born but statistically, you have a 50% chance of giving birth a week either side of your due date – when you’re 39 or 40 weeks pregnant. Even more reassuring, nine out of ten babies are born at full-term.

If you’re expecting more than one baby, you’re likely to give birth earlier. Twins are often born around 36-37 weeks.

  • 90% of babies are full-term (37+0 to 41+6 weeks).
  • 7% of babies are premature (before 37 weeks).
  • 3% of babies are born post-date (at or after 42 weeks).

It’s worth keeping in mind that these numbers include all babies, not just those whose mothers go into spontaneous labour. Most planned caesareans and inductions take place around 38 to 41 weeks which will skew the statistics in that direction.

What week are babies born - graph of weeks vs due date

Are there any natural ways to get labour started?

There are a lot of tips around on how you can bring on labour yourself at home if you’re past your due date. The bad news is that there is no scientific proof that any of them actually work. The good news is that there’s certainly no harm in trying some out if you want to – at the very least it will give you something to do to pass the time.

  • Go for a long walk: being active can stimulate your uterus into contracting.
  • Eat certain foods: curry, chilli, prunes and fresh pineapple can all give you an upset stomach which is believed to help get other muscles moving too.
  • Have sex/an orgasm: the hormone that’s released is the same one that stimulates contractions.
  • Stimulate your nipples: this also releases hormones so can be an alternative if you don’t feel up to any more strenuous sexual activity.

More from Which?

  • Pain relief during labour: from gas and air to epidurals – everything you need to know about your pain relief options.
  • Real birth stories – new mums discuss what going into labour and giving birth is really like.
  • Home birth checklist – make sure you have everything you need if you plan to give birth at home.
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