Labour signs

You’ve been feeling contractions on and off for days, but today they seem more regular — could this be it? 

“It’s not unusual to have one (or more) false starts,” says childbirth educator and doula Samantha Leeson. Here’s what to look for:

  • Before, or in, early labour, you’re likely to have loose bowel movements as your body gets ready.
  • You may notice that the mucus plug has come away from the cervix, often tinged with blood (called a “bloody show”). This can happen a day or more before labour starts, or during early labour.
  • The contractions are more than 45 seconds long and are gradually getting stronger and closer together. Shorter contractions that don’t increase in intensity are more likely to mean false labour.

Think it might be just a practice round? Your partner can massage your lower belly and back to make you more comfortable. Try having a warm bath to see if this will stop the contractions. If not, it will at least help you rest and relax.

Early Labour

What happens during this stage:

  • Contractions usually start at about 20 minutes apart and gradually get closer together, until they’re about five minutes apart.
  • Contractions last 30 to 45 seconds.
  • The cervix thins out or “effaces.”
  • The cervix begins to dilate and may be dilated three or four centimeters by the end of this stage.

Your goal for this stage:

“The goal in early labour is to relax and ignore it for as long as possible,” says childbirth educator Michele Sears. “I encourage couples to brainstorm before labour starts about what might work for them. Sometimes they pick a movie they’d like to see and buy the DVD in advance.”

Strategies couples have used to distract themselves:

  • listening to music
  • meditation
  • going for a walk
  • shopping
  • doing light housework
  • packing for the hospital

If you can, sleep or rest as it will give you more energy later. Or take advantage of the pain-relieving effects of natural endorphins that are released when you laugh (so make that movie a comedy).

Is it time to go to the hospital?

Generally, it’s a good idea to wait until you’re in active labour (at this stage, contractions last 60 seconds, are usually about five minutes apart at the beginning and get as close as three minutes apart, and the cervix thins out more and dilates to seven centimetres). “You’re looking for contractions that are four minutes apart and lasting at least 60 seconds, and that have been that way for at least an hour,” says Leeson. Going to the hospital too early can make labour seem longer, and the hospital environment may feel more stressful.

Some exceptions: if you live a long way from the hospital, or if the weather may make driving difficult, you may want to go sooner. If your membranes have ruptured, follow your doctor’s or midwife’s instructions. For a home birth, call your midwives a bit sooner so they have time to get set up.

What to bring with you when you're hospital-bound:

  • Music and CD player
  • Warm socks: Feet tend to get cold in labour!
  • Extra pillows
  • Ice water and washcloth for a cool compress
  • Tennis balls and rolling pin for firm pressure against your back
  • Hot pack: Ask your Shoppers Drug Mart Pharmacist to recommend the best hot or cold reusable and microwavable compress
  • Exercise ball: Sitting in an upright position forces good posture and some women find this position comfortable. The ball provides a firm, yet soft place to sit while rocking back and forth.