The first signs of labour can appear anywhere from four weeks to a few hours before giving birth.
Pregnant women may experience early signs of labour. The first signs of labour can appear anywhere from four weeks to a few hours before giving birth. A baby may also arrive without warning. All of these situations are perfectly normal.
Your baby drops
If it’s your first pregnancy, your baby will generally drop two to four weeks before delivery. In subsequent pregnancies, your baby may not drop until the onset of labour.
Signs of your baby dropping:
- Reduced pressure from the bottom of your uterus on your diaphragm. You may feel a lightening that makes breathing easier.
- Leg cramps or aches caused by pressure on your pelvic nerves.
- Swelling in the legs caused by decreased venous return.
- Thicker vaginal secretions due to increased blood flow in your vagina’s membrane.
- More frequent urges to urinate, as your baby is now pressing on your bladder.
Your energy levels rise or dip
Fatigue near the end of pregnancy can be due to many factors, such as fitful sleep, hormonal changes, and weight gain.
Some women report a sudden increase in energy 24 to 48 hours before labour. The cause of this spike is unknown. Don’t overexert yourself so you’re not exhausted when labour begins.
Your vaginal secretions change
You may notice that your vaginal secretions are heavier or thicker than usual.
Normal vaginal secretions look and feel like raw egg whites and generally leave a whitish film after drying. They should NOT contain blood, be liquid or transparent, or smell bad.
Pink secretions may be caused by mild bleeding from your cervix, which means that labour has started or is about to start.
Vaginal secretions that contain blood, are liquid, smell bad, or have an unusual colour are abnormal. Your vaginal area should not be itchy or painful. If you exhibit any of these symptoms, see your health care provider as soon as possible.
You lose your mucus plug
A mucus plug resembles thick gelatin and may be yellowish tinged pink or brown blood. When the plug detaches, microscopic blood vessels rupture and give the mucus a pinkish hue.
As its name suggests, the mucus plug seals your cervical canal during pregnancy. As your cervix becomes thinner and wider, the plug may loosen and detach.
Losing your mucus plug is not necessarily a sign that your baby is coming. If you experience it with other symptoms of labour, however, you may be close to delivery.
The time between losing the mucus plug and going into labour varies for each mother and delivery. It can happen anywhere from several days to 24 hours before the birth, or even during labour. A mucus plug may also break away gradually.
- You may have more bowel movements than usual or have softer stools due to the release of prostaglandins. These hormones are produced to ripen the cervix, but they can also affect your intestines.
Stretching of the ligaments near your uterus may cause lower back pain. These aches will gradually fade after childbirth.
A hormone called relaxin loosens your joints and allows them to stretch, which may also cause pain.
Contractions generally signal that you’re in labour and will soon deliver your baby. However, you may also experience Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labour pains.
Real contractions come at regular intervals and intensify as labour progresses. False contractions are irregular and fade with rest. The distinction between real and false labour is not always obvious. When in doubt, speak with your health care provider.
To learn more, read our fact sheet on contractions (French only).
When should you go to your birth location?
If your water breaks in a gush or begins to leak continuously.
If you experience vaginal bleeding.
If your contractions have been at regular 5-minute intervals for at least one hour. You may want to leave a little earlier if your birth location is more than 30 minutes from your home or if you’ve had a fast labour previously.
If you’re uncomfortable or very anxious during labour. However, after a medical assessment, you may be sent home if labour hasn’t progressed enough.
If you’re not sure what to do, call your hospital’s birthing unit or your midwife.
Things to keep in mind
There are many possible early signs of labour.
A single symptom does not necessarily mean that you’re in labour. If you experience many symptoms, however, you may be close to delivery.
The distinction between real and false labour is not always obvious. When in doubt, speak with your health care provider.
Scientific review: Dr. Chantal Ouellet, physician
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: December 2019
Photo: 123 rf/13613337
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Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec, Institut national de santé publique du Québec, 2019, 776 pp. www.inspq.qc.ca
Ladewig, Patricia, et al. Maternal & Child Nursing Care. 3rd ed., Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, 2011.