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  • Libby Clapham

Has labour started? How will I know?

One of the most common questions in class - so how will you know?

During the last few weeks of pregnancy your body starts producing more endorphins - these are natural pain killers. Along with another hormone called progesterone they help you to feel calm and focused.

In the muscles of your uterus special receptors have been developing and when all is ready for labour to start they begn reacting to a hormone called oxytocin circulating in your blood stream. It's oxytocin which keeps the labour going, stimulating the muscles of the uterus to contract or shorten, pulling the cervix open over the baby’s head (or bum - if your baby is that way up).

Your cervix has also been “ripening”. What that means is that it becomes softer, changes shape and begins to move forward. (Up until now it has been tucked away behind the baby’s head.) The rim of the cervix (which is quite thick - like a pouty mouth) starts to shorten or thin too. When it is ripe then it is ready to respond and open as the muscles of the uterus shorten and pull back.

It’s common for other mammals to start looking for a safe, private place to give birth. For us this would probably be wanting to stay near to home and maybe getting an urge to make home as comfortable as possible. So you might find yourself doing a few jobs around the house which you had not been getting round to before or constructing a "nest". That’s fine as long as the jobs are not too much like hard work - if you are just about to go into labour you need to save your energy for later!

You might also have a “show” - this is the plug of mucous, sometimes with a few streaks of blood, which comes away from the cervix as it starts to open.

Sometimes the membranes surrounding the baby break, and there is a gush of the amniotic fluid which has been surrounding the baby. It may be that your body has already started labour but you are not yet aware of it - but soon will be. It may be that your body hasn’t yet got started in which case if there is no sign of labour within 24 hours your medical advisers will suggest you have an induction because they will be concerned about risks of infection. So it’s important to give yourself every chance of going into labour naturally - staying relaxed, calm and in a place where you feel safe and at home - that could be a whole new blog in itself.

You may start to experience contractions (or surges as they are often called in hypno-birthing). These may just be tightenings of the bump - rather like Braxton Hicks contractions which you may have been experiencing, only rather more regular, or they may be more powerful. Some women describe them as similar to the first day of a period, but for others they are completely different.

The early part of labour is usually called “pre-labour” or the “latent phase” and sometimes a woman experiences these surges or contractions for a few hours and then it all dies away. It can come and go like this a few times before it becomes continuous and leads into what is known as “established” labour, but for most women it will continue, with the surges or contractions gradually getting stronger, longer and closer together as it moves towards established labour.

Has labour started?Has labour started? Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon.

Recognising that labour has started is a bit like watching the tide come in and out, - often it isn't immediately obvious so you need to keep an eye on it for a while. Eventually it becomes obvious that something is happening. For most women - especially with their first baby, there is plenty of time - unlike the depictions of labour in films and novels where so often everyone is rushing round at the first contraction behaving as if the baby is about to emerge at any second! So mostly when you get the first inkling that something is happening you can continue

Labour starting
Baby on the way

with whatever you were doing and just give it some time.

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