identify the early signs of labour
Labour & birth

How to identify the early signs of labour

Learn how to identify the early signs of labour that signify when labour is imminent.

If you are somewhere near the late third trimester of your pregnancy, you are probably eagerly waiting for a sign to tell you that labour is about to start. While some women develop very obvious signs to indicate that their labour has commenced, others may have a more subtle experience. Be alert for the following indicators, which are signs that labour has begun.

Early indicator

An early indicator of a pending labour may involve a change in the appearance of your abdomen. This occurs as your baby moves down from under your ribcage and settles in the pelvis in preparation for delivery. This sign is called ‘lightening’ as it is associated with a release of pressure on your diaphragm, and provides you with a sense of breathing a little easier.

Broken waters

As labour commences, you may experience a trickle, gush or flood of clear or pink-tinged fluid from your vagina. This spontaneous rupture of membranes (or ‘breaking of your waters’) occurs when the amniotic sac surrounding your baby ruptures. Some women are concerned that they may confuse their waters breaking with a ‘wee’ accident, as urinary incontinence can occur during late pregnancy.

However, bear in mind that amniotic fluid will not smell like urine. If you do notice an odour, as a safe measure it is best to mention this to your caregiver. Once your waters break, you must head to the hospital immediately.

Contractions and show

Labour contractions are a further sign to inform you that your baby is on her way. Although these may start off as vague lower back or period-type pains, as labour contractions develop, they will occur at regular but increasingly shorter intervals, and become more intense and longer as they progress.

identify the early signs of labour

Additionally, the thick mucus plug that sealed off your cervix throughout your pregnancy will come loose. At this time, you may notice the appearance of a bloodstained blob-like or stringy vaginal discharge. This is called the ‘show’ – however, despite its name, this sign may be missed if it is passed when you are on the toilet.

Braxton Hicks

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.’

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 with walking, do not increase in duration, and do not feel stronger over time as they do when you are in true labour.

When to go to hospital?

  • When your contraction pains become strong, regular and have formed a pattern. 
  • You may feel that it is now time to receive support from a midwife.
  • If you feel uncomfortable or just generally unwell.
If any of the following occur, go straight to hospital:

1. If you have reduced baby movements.

2. If the waters break – this can be either a large ‘gush’ or little ‘trickle’ of fluid – even if you are not sure, go into the hospital. 

3. Sometimes the waters may break without any pains. If this happens you should still go to the hospital. Many women labour within 24 hours of the waters going, but if not, an induction of labour may be discussed with you to reduce the risk of infection to you and/or your baby.

4. If the pressure sensation is building up and you are starting to feel like you need to push/empty your bowels.

5. If at any time you feel unwell.

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Ask Tracey

Midwife Tracey Donegan answers your questions about pregnancy and birth

Q When should I have my first pregnancy scan? And how many scans should I get throughout my pregnancy?

Your first scan is known as your dating scan and is routine in all hospitals. Most mums will have this scan at their booking visit, which can be anywhere between 12-18 weeks. The earlier the scan the more accurate it will be. If you have experienced recurrent miscarriages some hospitals will scan you earlier. Contact your antenatal clinic for more information. In Ireland, most women will have two scans in a healthy pregnancy – a dating scan and an anomaly scan at around 20 weeks. However, some units provide a dating scan only. Private scans are also available in most cities and many parents use these services for additional reassurance and to find out the sex of their baby.


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Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.