Although everyone experiences labour differently, there are some general signs that labour is beginning. You may have some of these signs “on and off” for several days before labour starts. This is called ‘pre-labour’. Some signs you may not notice, and others may be more obvious

Signs of labour

Engagement or Lightening:
As the baby grows and gets closer to birth, they settle deeper into your pelvis. This is often referred to as the ‘baby has dropped’ and it is called ‘lightening’ or ‘engagement’. This can occur up to 4 weeks before labour starts. When your baby “drops” you may be able to breathe a bit easier but you’ll have more pressure on your bladder and feel like you need to pass urine more often.

Irregular contractions:
Many people have warm-up contractions. These contractions help to soften the cervix and prepare the uterus for labour. You may feel these contractions as irregular ‘tightenings’ in your abdomen for days or even weeks before your due date. Sometimes, closer to your due date, these contractions may become regular in occurrence and you may wonder if labour has started. Warm-up contractions continue to be irregular, and do NOT become longer, stronger, or closer together, over time. These pre-labour contractions will stop after a few hours. In the meantime, you could be practicing your breathing patterns that help you remain calm. You can be assured that these pre-labour contractions are doing good work getting your cervix and uterus ready for labour.

Backaches are common in late pregnancy and/or may even be a sign of pre-labour. Massage, moving around and using heat (such as a shower) will often help to ease that discomfort. If backache comes and goes in a regular pattern, these might be labour contractions.

Staying Calm and Focused

Trying to stay calm is your best strategy for making labour easier. Panic and fear cause your body to release high levels of stress hormones. These stress hormones work against your body’s natural ability to labour efficiently, and they also cause you to use up energy. This can lead to a longer and more painful labour! Use techniques that keep you calm and focused (see: Working with your body during labour and Ways to stay relaxed in later sections for some suggestions)

Mucus Plug:
A discharge of mucus from your vagina may happen days or weeks before your baby is born. During pregnancy your cervix is closed tightly. Mucus collects in the cervix and forms a plug-like accumulation at the centre. As the cervix beings to soften, this mucus ‘plug’ is released. It is a sign that your body is getting ready, but not a sign that labour will start right away. This mucus discharge, or ‘plug’, may be released from your vagina any time from days or sometimes weeks before labour starts. Sometimes the discharge has a brownish or pink tinge throughout, if this looks more like blood than mucus, report it right away to your healthcare provider.

Soft bowel movements:
The hormone that causes your uterus to contract also works on your bowel, so you may notice your bowel movements are softer and seem looser and even a bit like diarrhea. Although looser bowel movements than usual are quite typical, call your healthcare provider if you are concerned about these symptoms or if they last longer than 24 hours.

Gush or trickle of fluid from your vagina:
This usually means your amniotic sac (your ‘bag of waters’) has broken or is leaking. Your healthcare provider may refer to this as your ‘membranes have ruptured’. If this happens before labour starts, go to your birth centre, even if you are not yet having contractions. The risk of infection to the baby increases when your water breaks.

Nesting is a ‘burst of energy and a need to have everything ready’, and may occur a few days before labour starts. If you feel this urge, be careful not to do too much. You’ll need your energy for labour and birth.

When to go to your birth centre

Most healthcare providers tell expectant parents to go to the birth centre when:

  • Contractions have been 5 minutes apart for an hour. Time your contractions from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next contraction.
  • If this is not your first baby, go to your birth centre when your contractions are 7 to 10 minutes apart for at least an hour.
  • Contractions are becoming stronger and you’re no longer comfortable at home.
  • The amniotic sac (bag of waters) has broken and you’ve lost fluid from your vagina.
  • There is a decrease in your baby’s movements. A lack or decrease of movement does not occur before labour starts. DO NOT IGNORE lack of movement.
  • There are abnormal signs such as vaginal bleeding or signs of preterm labour.
  • Call your healthcare provider or birth centre if you have any concerns.

Staying at home for early labour
For most pregnant people (unless your pregnancy is considered high risk), it is safe to stay home until active labour is well underway. Staying at home helps with coping, and the progress of labour. Always ask your healthcare provider what they recommend for you!


Your body knows what to do to bring your baby to birth. It has been growing your baby inside you since conception, and at the same time, it has been doing all the other things you need it to do in order for you to be healthy and function properly. There are so many processes like digestion, breathing, keeping your body the right temperature, just to name a few, which are at work all day every day and you don’t even need to think about it. Your body has been feeding and protecting your baby all this time, and your body knows what to do when it comes to the process of labour and birth.

Oxytocin is the hormone that makes your body produce contractions. Staying calm, focused and using comfort measures can help your body maintain your level of oxytocin, and will help labour progress


In late pregnancy, some people feel strong contractions as their body “warms up” for birth. These can come and go quite regularly for several hours or even days, and then can even go away. It can be difficult to know when it’s really time for baby!

Here are a couple of ways to tell the difference between pre-labour and “true” labour.

Pre-labour contractions:

  • May be long (a minute or more) but do not get stronger
  • Are usually irregular
  • Walking or lying down or changing positions might make them go away.

True labour contractions:

  • Get longer, stronger and closer together
  • Become regular
  • Walking or position changes make them stronger