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Signs of labour

Signs of labour starting include contractions and what's called a 'show', where the plug of mucus comes away from the cervix.

Some women experience very distinct signs of labour, while others do not. No one knows what causes labour to start or when it will start, but several hormonal and physical changes may indicate the beginning of labour.

These changes also include:

  • Lightening
  • Contractions
  • Dilation of the cervix

Lightening during labour

The process of your baby settling or lowering into your pelvis just before labour is called lightening. Lightening can occur a few weeks or a few hours before labour. Because the uterus rests on the bladder more after lightening, you may feel the need to pass urine more frequently.

Passing of the mucus plug or a 'show'

The mucus plug accumulates at the cervix during pregnancy. Just before labour begins and so the cervix can start to open wider, the mucus is discharged into the vagina. It may be clear, pink or slightly bloody. Labour may begin soon after the mucus plug is discharged or up to one to two weeks later.

Labour contractions

During contractions, the abdomen becomes hard. Between contractions, the uterus relaxes and the abdomen becomes soft. The way a contraction feels is different for each woman and may feel different from one pregnancy to the next. However, labour contractions usually cause discomfort or a dull ache in your back and lower abdomen, along with pressure in the pelvis. Contractions move in a wave-like motion from the top of the uterus to the bottom. Some women describe contractions as strong menstrual cramps. Unlike false labour contractions ( Braxton Hicks contractions) true labour contractions do not stop when you change your position or relax. Although the contractions may be uncomfortable, you will be able to relax in between contractions.

What's the difference between true labour and false labour?

Before "true" labour begins, you may have "false" labour pains, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions. These irregular uterine contractions are perfectly normal and may start to occur in your second trimester, although more commonly in your third trimester of pregnancy. They are your body's way of getting ready for the “real thing”.

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

Braxton Hicks contractions can be described as a tightening in the abdomen that comes and goes. These contractions do not get closer together, do not increase in how long they last and do not feel stronger over time as they do when you are in true labour. Braxton Hicks contractions last for between 30 seconds to two minutes.

How do I know when I am in true labour?

To establish if the contractions you are feeling are the real thing, ask yourself the following questions.

Contraction characteristics

False labour

True labour

How often do the contractions occur?

Contractions are often irregular and do not get closer together.

Contractions come at regular intervals and last about 30-90 seconds. As time goes by, they get closer together and last longer.

Do they change with movement?

Contractions may stop when you walk or rest, or may even stop if you change positions.

Contractions continue despite movement or changing positions.

How strong are they?

Contractions are usually weak and do not get much stronger. Or they may be strong at first and then get weaker.

Contractions steadily increase in strength.

Where do you feel the pain?

Contractions are usually only felt in the front of the abdomen or pelvic region.

Contractions usually start in the lower back and move to the front of the abdomen.


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