Birth: The early labour signs you need to look out for

baby bump

by Lorna White |
Updated on

Your due date’s getting closer, but what the are signs that labour is a few days away, and how will you know the labour signs to look out for? Even the most subtle changes can indicate your baby is on the way.

Expecting a dramatic Call The Midwife-style birth? Relax. Most labours begin gently, gradually developing over hours or even days (sorry!).

We talk to midwife Marley Hall aka @midwifemarley to answer some of your FAQs on early labour symptoms. Make a mental checklist of these early clues that let you know it’s really happening.

What are the early signs of labour to look out for?

'Labour tends to start gradually and lots of women wont even notice when it’s in it’s early stages,' says midwife Marley Hall. 'Regular tightening/cramping of the lower abdomen or back that steadily get stronger and closer together are the most common signs. The cramping may start off feeling like period type pain and may also be felt in the groin and thighs.'

How much do the early signs differ from woman to woman?

'The signs that a woman will feel will depend on several factors including the position of the baby, whether or not you’ve had a baby before and your general well being,' continues Marley. 'If the baby is in a "back to back" also known as sunnyside up position, you may feel most of the contractions in your back. If you have laboured before with a previous birth, you may find that the contractions intensify quicker. Some women will notice losing their mucous plug and some won't. It varies pretty much from woman to woman.'

What’s normal and what signs should cause concern?

If you are experiencing regular contractions that are slowly intensifying and getting closer together this is a good sign as it means that you are stepping closer to meeting your baby! There are some situations however in which you should inform your care provider immediately:

  • If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and having signs of labour

  • If your baby’s movements are reduced – Your baby should still be moving, even during labour

  • If you notice any vaginal bleeding – slight pink mucous/ discharge (bloody show) is common in labour especially if the cervix is dilating rapidly but you should still mention it to your care provider.

  • If you are feeling unwell, have a temperature and/or rapid pulse

  • Your waters break and the colour is green or brown- this could be a sign that the baby has passed meconium (first poo) in the uterus and occasionally is a sign of distress.

How long can early labour last?

Labour is broken down into 3 stages:

  1. The labour

  2. The birth of baby

  3. The birth of the placenta

The first stage however is broken down further into two more stages – Latent and established.

'The latent phase of labour is the earliest stage that occurs when a womans cervix is dilating up to 4cm,' explains Marley. 'This process can take hours or days for some women. It often takes a long time as the uterus is busy trying to coordinate itself to contract efficiently! Once a woman is in established labour, identified as being 4cm dilated and contracting at least every 4 minutes. This stage on average lasts between 8-12 hours for first time mums and around 5 hours for subsequent births.'

When should you go to hospital/call your midwife?

You should call the hospital midwife if:

  • You have been having strong contractions every 4 minutes (start of one contraction to the start of the next) for about 2 hours and they are lasting 50 secs- 1 minute.

  • If you think you are in labour and have a history of a precipitous (super rapid) birth, even if you are not contracting as above.

  • If you are experiencing any of the causes for concern mentioned.

  • If you are worried about anything at all or feel you need support, call your midwife.

Related: Is it safe to sleep in early labour?

What if it’s not my due date yet?

As above if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, call your care provider at the earliest opportunity.

Advice for keeping calm

'Take an antenatal class to keep you informed as to what to expect,' says Marley. 'Practice relaxation techniques that are used in programmes such as hypnobirthing. Write a birth plan and involve your birth partner, use positive affirmations throughout pregnancy to help you get into the right mindset and practice breathing techniques. Remember that each contraction will bring you closer to meeting your baby!'

Marley Hall is a midwife, speaker, Instagram content creator and mother of 5. Having spent 11 years working within the NHS, she now works privately, with a focus on educating parents about all aspects of pregnancy birth and beyond. Marley teaches parents through informative and humorous doodles via her Instagram page @midwifemarley and offers free birth guides via her website

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