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Women close to her due date wondering if she is in labour yet

Am I in Labour? How to spot the signs that your baby is coming now!

While your estimated due date may be based on 40 weeks to the date of the start of your last period, (and typically within a 37- 42 week window) your baby may have other ideas about when they want to make an appearance.

Undoubtedly, you’ll be looking for signs of labour at any glimmer of difference in the third trimester and trying to decide whether it’s safe to leave the house!

A countdown to labour: what causes labour to start?

If you like to geek up on what’s happening within your body, this is the part for you.

Until recently, the most knowledge we had was that once the brain and lungs are matured, the baby releases a small amount of a protein that initiates labour in the mother. This is a seemingly basic explanation for something so momentous.

But it’s not just us who have felt in the dark; even the experts have been mystified by the biology surrounding the start of labour until new research in 2021 uncovered changes that happen within the body in a healthy, full-term pregnancy.

By testing blood samples from a study group, they found that there were blood markers showing several different things happening, rather than one single change. It was observed that 2-4 weeks before labour, there are:

“changes in levels of steroid hormones such as progesterone and cortisol” and the blood “showed decreasing levels of factors that help blood-vessel formation”

Which is suspected to be a sign of weakening between the placenta and uterus. They also found increasing levels of factors needed for blood coagulation, which help prevent blood loss after delivery and that some placental proteins surged as well.

“Near the end of pregnancy, placental material and fetal cells reach the mom’s blood, potentially causing an immune response” which protects the mother’s body post-delivery.

As you can see, there’s still a lot left to be unpacked and further research could lead to more accurate knowledge in the future about when your baby could be due!

Hormones and labour

Relaxin: Loosens ligaments and relaxes the uterine muscle ready for the baby’s delivery.

Oxytocin: Stimulates uterine contractions during labour. It doubles in the first stage of labour and climbs steadily to the second stage of labour. It releases prostaglandins and is also responsible for milk let-down and bonding with your baby. It’s thought oxytocin could be partially responsible for nesting behaviour prior to labour. Interesting fact: Oxytocin is also produced when you have an orgasm!

Beta-endorphins are released as contractions increase, acting as natural pain relief hormones.

Prolactin: Prepares the breast tissues for the release of milk.

The stages of labour

The first stage of labour consists of latent and active phases. The latent phase which can last from 6-10 hours up to 2-3 days is where the cervix starts opening. The active phase starts at 4cm dilation and leads to established labour. The amount of time this phase takes can vary.

The second stage of labour is from full dilation to the baby’s delivery. This is when you’ll be pushing, and it can last from a few minutes to up to around 3 hours.

The third stage of labour is after your baby’s delivered to the placenta being expelled.

The obvious signs of labour

Confusing sensations later in pregnancy could make you feel that you’re going into labour. They include vaginal pains (sharp, sudden pains nicknamed ‘lightning crotch’!) and round ligament pain (a sharp shooting pain around the sides of your belly caused by stretching of ligaments that support your uterus when you move, cough, sneeze or wee). But look out for the more conventional signs that labour is coming:

  • A ‘show’, which could happen hours or days before labour.
  • Lower back pain that might go down your legs.
  • Your bump dropping.
  • A leaking feeling when your waters break. This could be a fast flow or a trickle and is about a litre of fluid.
  • Changes in vaginal discharge.

Is it labour, or is it Braxton Hicks?

True LabourFalse Labour/ Braxton Hicks
Contractions are regular and come in a predictable pattern. They carry on in their pattern whether you change activity or not. Contractions come more frequently, and they last longer. They start either at the back and move to the front, or the other way around. You may also lose your mucous plug (a ‘show’) or your waters may break. Contractions are irregular and unpredictable. If you stop a particular activity that brings them on, they will stop too. Contractions don’t come more frequently or last longer. Braxton Hicks are only felt at the front of the belly and not the back. They also don’t come with pain or other symptoms.

Your midwife or doctor will be able to check whether your cervix is softening and opening. In a false labour this won’t happen, and the cervix will stay the same.

Can you go into labour without knowing it?

Labour can be slow to start, and it can be easy to not notice it happening.

Subtle hints that labour is imminent:

Not all symptoms can be found on a list, but it helps to have an idea of what might count as a sign.

“I was decorating the skirting boards on Saturday before a planned early caesarean section the following week. My husband was moaning about how long the decorating was taking, so I had an absolute meltdown and downed tools in protest. This I believe was not just justified anger but feeling a bit crazy with the hormones!”

The next day Emily reports stopping in every aisle of B&Q and Sainsbury’s for what she didn’t know were real contractions. The baby arrived at 1am by emergency caesarean section.

If you don’t have a reason for throwing the decorating brushes out of the pram, you may wish to take a look at some of these more subtle signs;

  • Loose bowels (diarrhoea)
  • A sixth sense that either you, or strangely, your mother has!
  • Feeling a need to stay home.
  • Nesting, cleaning, preparation or a sudden burst of energy.
  • A heavy dropping feeling in the lower abdominal area. Cramping, waddling and needing to urinate.
  • Mood changes like tearfulness or dramatic responses to small irritations, feeling unusually nervous, anxious or overwhelmed.
  • Struggling to eat a normal-sized meal but feeling hungry again not long after.
  • Sleep pattern changes.
  • Nausea that potentially comes from pain.
  • The cat or dog won’t leave you alone or keeps their distance.

Was it a false alarm?

Subtle signs can make it hard to know when labour is happening for real. You shouldn’t be made to feel like an amateur when it comes to childbirth, so if you are turned back, don’t feel awkward or embarrassed, what matters most is that you ask for help if you feel you need it.

Labour could happen fast – be prepared!

Don’t be surprised if you have one thing planned and your baby has other ideas, this is most definitely a sign of them showing their presence as a new and independent human! 

Ali was all set for her baby shower at 2pm;

“I started having contractions just before everyone arrived. So periodically I would stop talking and go pink on the face, have a contraction then carry on! The midwife came for a look, I went into hospital at 9pm and my baby arrived at 3.30am. On my second child the first contraction made itself known at 2am with my baby arriving at 5.30am, almost being delivered at the roundabout on the way!’

Labour symptoms can come and go

Every labour experience is different, and the pattern to symptoms can be different.

Jennie’s contractions started in the morning, then stopped so she went to bed at night but woke up to intense contractions and headed to hospital

“I was bracing my legs against the wheel arch of the car and moaning. I barely made it into the hospital as the contractions were so intense and close together. I asked for an epidural and the midwife laughed and told me my baby would be here before the anaesthetist was. They weren’t wrong; twenty minutes later our baby was born.”

On her next baby after a similar pattern, everything picked up, but didn’t progress, however she then went from the baby not moving, to all of a sudden arriving.

How to prepare when you think you’re in labour

Should I eat, go to the loo, or will the baby fall into it? You might have some wild questions going through your head but there’s no judgement here so we’re happy to answer!

First of all, stay calm. You don’t know how you are going to react, and anything goes. Hopefully you have prepared yourself mentally over a period of time and if you’ve learnt any pregnancy yoga or hypnobirthing techniques, now’s the time to start using them!

  • If you find that you feel scared, get some moral support by talking to friends, family or your midwife.
  • Remain active and move around.
  • If you need to go to the toilet, do it. Sitting on the loo in the first stage of labour helps your pelvic muscles to relax naturally and thin the cervix. And yes, it is possible to mistake the urge to push with that of needing the loo!
  • You can have a shower or a bath to relieve pain or stress.
  • Refamiliarise yourself with your birth plan and the options you have thought about for giving birth.
  • If you haven’t yet packed your hospital bag, now is definitely the time to! 
  • During the latent phase you can eat if you need to, but make sure you stay hydrated!

When to contact the hospital, birth centre or your midwife

Call the number you have been given. You’ll be asked questions about your symptoms to determine whether you are in labour and how close to delivery.

It’s important not to hesitate if you are worried anything is wrong and want to be checked out, particularly for the following;

  • Bright red bleeding
  • If your waters break and the water smells or is coloured
  • If you think your baby is moving less than usual
  • If you are in constant/ severe pain
  • Severe nausea and vomiting
  • Contractions haven’t started within 24 hours of your waters breaking

Any other unusual health symptoms such as: chest pain, swelling in the face, legs or arms, dizziness, severe headache or vision changes, fever or shortness of breath require a visit to the hospital.

Preterm Labour happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy and needs immediate medical attention. Even if you experience preterm labour, it doesn’t mean that you are going to have a preterm birth. 

You may find it useful to visit Kicks Count and track your baby’s movements using their app or wristband so that you can notice any changes.

If your baby has come suddenly or you have any other critical concerns, then call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

At Kari we’re here to hold your hand every step of the way. You’ve got this Mama!

This article has been reviewed by our Kari Health Experts and Editorial Board to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information presented. However, please note that the content provided is for informational purposes only and should not replace advice from your medical professional.

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