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How Will I Know When Labour Is Starting?

After nine, very long months of growing a tiny human, the final days and hours of pregnancy can be a bit of a mind spin. You start to question every twinge, every cramp, every ache.

There are so many things to think about that it can be difficult to know exactly when labour is starting. So we’ve rounded up some of the key factors to help you be sure that it really is game on…

What is labour?

Labour is the (sometimes lengthy) process by which a baby is born from the mother’s uterus and through the vagina. During labour, the uterus contracts rhythmically to help push the baby down the birth canal and eventually out of the mother’s body. The cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus, gradually thins out (effaces) and opens up (dilates) to allow the baby to pass through.

What are the stages of labour ?

1. First Stage

The first stage is the longest stage of labour and is divided into two phases. The first phase is called early (latent) labour, during which the cervix begins to dilate and contractions start.

The second phase is known as active (established) labor. You are considered to be in active labour when you reach around 4cm dilated. The active phase continues until your cervix dilates to 10cm. Your contractions will become stronger and more frequent during this phase.

2. Second Stage (aka the pushing part)

The second stage begins once the cervix is fully dilated at 10 centimetres. It involves the active pushing and birthing of the baby. Contractions during this stage help propel the baby through the birth canal, and eventually, the baby’s head emerges (crowning), followed by the rest of the body.

3. Third Stage

The third stage involves the delivery of the placenta, which is the organ that nourished the baby during pregnancy. After the baby is born, the uterus continues to contract, causing the placenta to separate from the uterine wall. Your midwife will assist in the delivery of the placenta. You will be closely monitored by midwives during this time and baby’s conditions will also be assessed, including their breathing, temperature, and overall health.

Throughout labour, your medical team will monitor yours and the baby’s well-being, including vital signs, baby’s heart rate, and how you’re progressing. Pain management options such as breathing techniques, relaxation, movement, and medications (such as epidurals) may be used to help manage the pain and discomfort of labor.

How will I know when labour is starting?

Knowing when labour is starting can be tricky to pinpoint because it rarely happens like it does in the movies.

In the first, early stage of labour, things usually start off fairly slowly and irregularly. This is especially so if it’s your first baby. You might experience some mild cramping (like period pains), which stop and start over a few hours or even days. You might also experience contractions (around your bump) but they might not happen regularly or be in a set pattern. This phase of labour can go on for a long time. It’s advisable to tune into your body, rest when you can, do some gentle movement and stay hydrated so that you conserve your energy.

As the first stage of labour progresses, you’ll likely notice that you’re experiencing stronger, more frequent, and regular contractions. This is a good time to start timing the duration of your contractions and the interval between them. We are big fans of the Freya app from the Positive Birth Company, which you can download here. As contractions become stronger, it can be helpful to keep moving around to find positions where you feel most comfortable. Some good positions for helping labour progress include gently bouncing on an exercise ball, swaying back and forth and kneeling on all fours.

How long does labour usually last?

If you’re a first-time mama, then the time from the start of established labour (4cm dilated) to being fully dilated (10cm) is usually 8 to 18 hours. If you’re on baby number two, three or more. then you might find labour is quicker (around 5 to 12 hours).

What does a contraction actually feel like?

Wanting to know what a contraction feels like is totally normal. Especially because the beginning of them signals a pretty big life event is about to take place. Whilst everyone’s experience of a contraction will be different, here’s a little overview of how it might feel for you…

  • Sensation of tightening: During a contraction, you will feel a tightening sensation in your abdomen. It can start from the top of your bump (the uterus) and spread downward, or it may be localised to a specific area. Your bump may feel very firm and solid during a contraction.
  • Period pain-like cramps: Contractions (especially early ones) are sometimes described as feeling similar to menstrual cramps. The intensity can vary from mild to strong, and the pain may come and go in a rhythmic pattern.
  • Pain in the back or lower abdomen: Contractions can cause discomfort or pain in the lower back, lower abdomen, or both areas simultaneously. Some women may feel the pain primarily in one location, while others experience it in both.
  • Increasing intensity and duration: As labour progresses, contractions typically become more intense, longer-lasting, and closer together. In the early stages, contractions may last around 30 to 60 seconds and occur at intervals of 5 to 20 minutes. As labour advances, contractions may last 60 to 90 seconds and occur every 2 to 5 minutes.
  • Waves of sensation: Contractions often start gradually, build up in intensity, peak, and then gradually subside. You may feel a wave-like motion as the contraction reaches its peak and then diminishes.

Remember, everyone’s pain threshold and perception of pain is different. If you have any concerns about the pain or are unsure if what you’re feeling is a contraction, it’s always best to reach out to your midwife for advice and reassurance.

What other signs might signal labour is starting?

In addition to regular contractions, here are some other signs to look out for that labour is starting. ( FYI – these may occur before, after or at the same time you have contractions):

  • Digestive changes: You may experience diarrhoea, loose bowel movements or vomiting in the hours and days leading up to labour.
  • Backache or lower abdominal pain: Some women experience persistent lower back pain or aching in the lower abdomen, which may come and go or remain constant.
  • Pressure in the pelvis: You might feel increased pressure in your pelvic area as the baby’s head engages and moves down into the birth canal.
  • Bloody show: A pink or brown discharge, often mixed with mucus, may indicate the release of the cervical plug as the cervix begins to dilate. This is commonly referred to as a “bloody show.”
  • Waters breaking: The amniotic sac, also known as the “waters,” may rupture, causing a gush or a trickle of fluid. It can be clear or slightly pink-tinged. If your waters break, contact your midwife or healthcare provider.

How much does giving birth hurt on a scale of 1 – 10?

Look, we’re not going to lie to you, giving birth is a big deal. A vaginal birth involves very intense contractions (that can go on for a long time) as well as significant stretching of the birth canal.  It would be unfair of us to sugarcoat it and say that it’s not painful at all.

However, it’s not all terrible and many women refer to childbirth pain as a productive pain—a pain with a purpose. This is because the joy and excitement of meeting their baby outweighs the pain experienced during labour.

What are some pain-management options?

There are lots of options to manage pain during labour, both natural and medicinal. Some common labour management options include breathing exercises, gentle movement, water immersion, a TENS machine and squeezing a comb. A relaxed and calm birthing environment can also help you manage labour pain, including having soothing music and being in a dimly lit room.

There’s also the stronger type of pain management aka drugs. We are firm believers that no woman should have to suffer unnecessarily during labour and there are plenty of pain-relieving medications available. The options range from gas and air to injections (pethidine, diamorphine) to an epidural. There are risks and benefits associated with each option so it’s always best to consult with your midwife /medical team so that you can make an informed decision.

Keep in mind that every person’s experience of labour is unique, and the duration and intensity of labour can vary from woman to woman. What one person finds painful, another may find more manageable. It’s essential to discuss your pain management preferences with your midwife, do your research and develop a birth plan that aligns with your needs and desires.


Birthbabe does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The resources on our website are provided for informational purposes only. You should always consult with a healthcare professional regarding any medical diagnoses or treatment options.

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