“How will I know I’m in labour?” is undoubtedly one of the most common questions that first-time mummas have. And once in labour, “when exactly should I go to hospital?”
Thanks to popular culture and movies portraying an intense onset of labour as soon the waters break, some women worry that it will just suddenly happen while they’re out and about!
While this can happen, sort of, to a very small number of women – in most cases there are plenty of warning signs and lots of time between the first signs of labour and meeting your baby.
Key signs that your body is preparing to go into labour:
- Diarrhea – This doesn’t happen for everyone, but it can be a sign that your body is preparing for birth. The process of pushing a baby through the birth canal can feel very much like the urge to do a big poo and given your bubba’s head will be pushing on your bowel as they make their way into the world, it’s extremely likely that you will indeed do a poo during labour. But don’t worry, at that point it’s honestly the least of your worries and midwives are so used to it and very discreet at clearing it up, you’ll barely notice. And that’s why women often experience diarrhea before labour begins, to help clear away most of the waste before the birth meaning there is very little to worry about, if and when you do poo in labour.
- Losing your mucous plug – this is one of the more commonly known signs that labour is impending. Losing your mucous plug is a sign that labour is on its way but not necessarily straight away… some women lose theirs a week or more before going into labour. How will you know? Trust me, when you lose it, you’ll know! The best way to describe it is like a giant golly – a clear to creamy, gelatinous glob of mucus. Gross? Yeah kind of, but it’s all completely natural and normal. No need to save it to show to the midwives (we’ve seen plenty, trust me) but just something to keep in mind as being part of the process. All it means is that your cervix has begun to soften and the plug that’s been helping to keep your bub safe and sealed for all those weeks, has loosened and come out. If your mucus plug is streaked with blood (also known as a bloody show), and a brown or pinkish colour, it’s a good sign you’ll go into labour in a day or so. If you have a bloody show before 37 weeks or are experiencing period-like bleeding, contact your healthcare provider.
- Rupturing of membranes or waters breaking – this is a sign that the amniotic sac your bubba has been floating around in has ruptured and labour will soon begin. This can happen before contractions start for some women and for others, their waters don’t break until the contractions have begun. Some women experience this as a slow trickle of fluid and for others it can be more of a sudden gush. One thing I can tell you is that it once it starts it doesn’t really stop! There’s a lot of fluid in there. The amniotic fluid is colourless and odourless, sometimes with a slightly sweet smell. If yours is tinged greenish or brown, call your health care provider immediately as it can indicate that your baby has done their first poo in utero. You should also call your healthcare provider if you think your waters have broken and you’re less than 37 weeks. Once your waters have broken, most health care providers will give you approximately 24 hours to give birth before intervening and speeding up the process. Why? Once the sac has ruptured, you and bub are more prone to infection.
- Contractions – in the third trimester you may experience Branxton Hicks contractions which are essentially practice runs for the real thing. The difference between these and the real deal is the regularity and intensity of them, real contractions are stronger, have a more noticeable pattern and don’t go away. In the early stages of labour, the cervix starts to thin, and contractions can be anywhere from 5-30 mins apart, lasting 15-40 seconds. As your contractions gradually become closer together, longer and stronger (2-3 mins apart, 45-60 seconds long and much more intense), this is a sign that you’ve progressed to established labour.
When is it time to go to the hospital?
As a general rule, I tell my Birth Beat mums to stay at home for as long as they can. Until they can no longer ignore their contractions and they’re becoming noticeably more intense and regular. It’s a good idea to monitor your contractions (there are lots of apps now to track them – no need for an excel spreadsheet like my husband Rosco used ;-P ) so that you can provide that information to your healthcare provider when needed and know when you should make your way to the hospital or birthing centre.
Inside the Birth Beat Ultimate Online Prenatal Program we go into greater detail about how all these different stages will feel and I provide loads of midwife tips and tools to help you manage the pain. Once you understand exactly what your body is doing in labour and what the ‘pain’ is, as well as the unique features of each stage of labour, you start to feel far more confident that you’ll know exactly what to do when your baby starts to make their way into the world!
One of the biggest mistakes I see first-time mums make is diving into their toolbox of pain management tricks too soon. At the first sign of labour, they are understandably excited and start to implement them all at once. By the time they’re actually in active labour, they’re too exhausted for the main event.
That’s why I advise to stay at home and rest for as long as you can.
If it’s night time, try your best to relax and get some sleep.
Go for a walk with your partner to the neighbourhood coffee shop.
Curl up with a heat pack and a good book or your favourite movie.
I always say that labour is like a marathon so you need to conserve energy and save all your labour management tools until you really need them.
By staying at home in your own space, where you feel comfortable and relaxed, it’s more likely that your labour will progress naturally and faster.
There are several circumstances whereby you should call your healthcare provider or go to the hospital straight away:
- If your healthcare provider has advised that you do so at the first sign of labour
- Your waters have broken and they’re a greenish or brown colour
- There is blood in your waters
- Your pain feels extremely intense, unmanageable or there is a sudden, abnormal pain
- You are unable to stop vomiting
- You can’t feel any movements from baby
- You feel the uncontrollable urge to push
- Your vision is blurred or you feel dizzy
- If you’re worried that something just doesn’t seem right
Like I always say, every baby, every mum and every labour are unique, so your experience will be completely different to that of your best friend, your mum or the textbooks. What’s important is that you know what to look for, understand what your body is doing and have the confidence in yourself and your body that you can totally rock your best birth. If you want to deep dive into each stage of labour and discover all my tips and tricks learnt from delivering hundreds of babies and working with thousands of parents to help them prepare for their best birth, check out our Ultimate Online Prenatal Program.