As you approach your due date, every cramp and discomfort can make you wonder: Is this is it? Am I in labour? Is nausea a sign of labour approaching? The truth is, getting that baby out of you is a long process—even if your actual labour is blessedly speedy—and your body starts to prepare weeks before the real deal starts. Here are some signs of labour that you might experience in the lead up to your baby’s arrival.
These ‘practice’ contractions can start as early as 24 weeks, and are simply a tightening of the uterus. You may feel your entire abdomen harden, and then relax again. These contractions can be uncomfortable, but are typically not painful. Towards the end of your pregnancy they may come more frequently—though they're not necessarily an early sign of labour
Your baby might start moving lower into your pelvis as he gets ready to come out. This can be especially noticeable if your baby has been positioned right under your rib cage for the last few weeks. Expect people to exclaim ‘the baby has dropped!’ when they see you.
You know things are starting to get real if you experience any of the following signs of labour:
Mucus near the cervix protects the baby from bacteria. As the cervix begins to soften and dilate you can get a mucus discharge—it can be clear or blood tinged—and it might come out right before active labour starts, or days before. Not every mom-to-be notices her mucus plug coming out.
Towards the end of your pregnancy, you will see your doctor or midwife more often, and she might check to see if your cervix is dilated. But don’t get too excited if she says you’re “a few centimetres.” “You can be two centimetres dilated for weeks without getting contractions,” says Lee Schofield, family doctor at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. It’s considered active labour when you are four centimetres dilated.
Usually, your water breaking isn’t as dramatic as we see in movies, and will often happen after contractions start, or even in the hospital when you’re already well into labour. But if you do get a sudden gush of fluid it could be your water breaking, signalling that labour is coming. If this happens to you, call your midwife or doctor.
Sometimes, if your baby is lying in an unusual position in your uterus, your contractions might feel more like a severe, rhythmic back pain. “If the uterus is pushing against the spine because the baby is in a different position, you will experience more back labour,” explains Schofield.
Braxton Hicks contractions can come and go and are generally uncomfortable, but not painful. When real contractions start, they get more intense, and there is a pattern. “When you can’t talk through them or catch your breath, if you have to stop and breathe in the moment, that is a sign you are getting there,” says Schofield.
You may be tempted to go to the hospital as soon as contractions start, but doctors and midwives encourage you to wait until they become more frequent and intense, especially if it’s your first baby. “We tell women to be on the lookout for the ‘4-1-1’ rule,” says Schofield: “Contractions that are four minutes apart, lasting one minute, and go on for an hour.”