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What are the signs of labour?

Everything you wanted to know about labour including early signs, contractions, stages and pain relief
    5-minutes read

    At a glance

    Know the different signs of false, and real labour

    Labour contractions become more intense and regular to tell you that your baby is due 


    Labour can be quick or it can be longer

    If you think you’re in labour, call your hospital for advice

    As your due date approaches, your anxiety levels might increase as well as the questions about what to expect. Knowing the signs of labour will help you prepare for your big day.

    • False labour - Braxton Hicks contractions usually occur from 24 weeks. These are your uterus ‘practising’ for the big day but they don’t mean you’re actually ready to go into labour. You’ll know because Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular, last a short while and are normally not painful   

    • Mucus plug - There are many first signs of real labour but this is not one of them. Also known as a "show" it is when the mucus from the entrance to your cervix comes away. But it may still be days until labour starts

    • Waters breaking - Your waters may break (but not always) and you may experience backache. If your waters break before labour starts, phone your hospital immediately. Without amniotic fluid there is an increased risk of infection for your baby

    • Contractions - Intense period-like pain are the very early signs of labour slowly approaching. Contractions will get progressively stronger and more intense. If these last more than 30 seconds, labour may have started and it is time to call the hospital for advice

    If you think you are in labour, call your midwife or hospital for guidance. Your midwife may advise you to stay at home until your contractions last 30-60 seconds and occur every five minutes, but either way, call your midwife for guidance.

    What are the stages of labour?

    Stage one – The first stage is the longest and can last several hours – in rare circumstances it can last a day or more.

    • Your cervix begins to open, or dilate as your baby descends
    • The contractions have a steady, regular rhythm. They feel stronger, last longer, and become closer without easing

    • Keeping mobile will help you cope with the pain of contractions
    • Your waters break – although, some women go into labour without their waters breaking

    Stage two –This stage of labour is when your cervix is fully dilated at 10cm and can last up to two hours, especially for first time mums.

    • You’ll feel like pushing but don’t worry if you don’t – your midwife will be there to help
    • Some babies need a little help in coming into the world, so forceps or a ventouse may be used to help at the final stages. In some cases, a Caesarean Section may be recommended, but your midwife will explain everything and guide you

     Stage three – This final stage of labour happens after the birth of your baby. 

    • Your uterus will contract and push out the placenta. You are usually given an injection to help the placenta deliver as the baby is born. Or you can let nature take its course – this can take up to 1 hour.


    What about pain relief in labour?

    There are lots of effective options to help ease your labour pain symptoms. Discuss them all with your midwife and partner.

    • Natural techniques – these include acupuncture, aromatherapy, homeopathy, hypnosis, and reflexology. These techniques help relax mums during birth which can help labour pains feel less intense. Check with your midwife whether your hospital offers these. Massage, breathing exercises and staying mobile can also help

    • Birth pool – water may help you relax and make contractions seem less painful. However you may have to meet certain criteria in order to use a birthing pool. You can discuss it with your midwife when you put it in your birth plan – remember to be flexible with your plan as babies often have their own ideas about how and when they’ll arrive

    • Gas and air – a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide gas called Entonox can help make things more bearable. You breathe it in at the start of every contraction. There are no harmful side effects for your baby although some women say it makes them feel sick or lightheaded

    • TENS – Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation is a device that emits small electrical pulses through electrodes put on your back. These pulses encourage your body to release endorphins. It’s a drug-free option with no side effects that can help in the early stages of labour

    • Pethidine and Diamorphine – these intramuscular drugs are injected into your thigh or buttock to help you relax and help lessen the pain. They last about four hours. Given too near to your baby’s birth, they can temporarily affect their breathing and ability to feed – but your midwife will determine the right time to give the injection. Pethidine makes some women feel woozy so is not allowed if you use a birth pool

    • Epidural – this is a pain-relieving drug injected through a fine flexible tube into a space around your spinal cord. It is only available in hospitals as it requires an anaesthetist to administer and your baby’s heart rate must be constantly monitored. An epidural numbs you from the waist down, so you’ll not feel the pain of the contractions, but still be aware of your tummy tightening


    Preparing for labour in advance

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