What to Expect in Early Labour

Like many things pregnancy and birth related, labour can start differently for each pregnant mama.

Danielle Bradley Harris

Typically if your pregnancy is low risk then you can usually expect spontaneous labour to occur when you are between 37-42 weeks pregnant. 

You may have seen that a TV labour usually starts with a dramatic gush of water in the middle of a shop and then contractions follow immediately after. But actually in real life, early labour (known as the latent phase) it is very normal for either waters to break or contractions to start spontaneously. There is no set way for labour to start. You may even notice your mucus plug coming away, although this could happen a good few weeks before labour, backache, or period like discomfort.


For most of your pregnancy, your baby has been protected and surrounded by a fluid filled sac called the amniotic sac. The amniotic sac is made up of amniotic fluid and two thin, but tough, layers called the membranes. Towards the end of pregnancy when labour is ready to start, membranes can rupture and spring a leak – commonly known as waters breaking.

When waters / membranes break they can go with a gush or sometimes just a trickle. It is important to observe for signs of this towards the end of your pregnancy as your maternity unit needs to know when your waters break. 

*Please take note of the colour of your waters if they go as this is good information to pass onto your Midwife*


You may have heard lots about contractions. Contractions are the name used to describe the tightening and shortening of the uterine muscles. 

Contractions have two purposes:

  1. To help the baby to move down into the birth canal.
  2. To assist the cervix in thinning out and dilating.

In early labour, contractions often start as quite irregular, infrequent and uncomfortable tightenings. You might notice that the contractions may stop and start, this is all part of the latent phase and it could last hours or sometimes days. Timing contractions is a really good idea in early labour. Time from the start of the contraction to the end and record how many contractions you are experiencing in each ten minute period. By recording the duration and frequency you are able to recognise when you may need to contact your local maternity unit.

What can I do?

At first you may be unsure if you are in early labour or not. It is always a good idea to:

Monitor. Record frequency and duration of contractions, watery loss and/or symptoms. Also monitor fetal movements as your baby should remain active through labour.

Bathe. Water is brilliant for relaxing and helping with discomfort.

Hydrate. Drink plenty of fluids to keep hydrated, you could also drink isotonic liquids to keep energy levels up.

Snack. Labour requires a lot of energy, so snacking little and often throughout the latent phase will help.

Mobilise. Remaining mobile during the early stages will help to get the baby into an optimal position for birth.

Analgesia. Paracetamol is safe and effective to take during labour if you have no recognised allergies / contra-indications.

Lighting. Keep lighting to a minimum. Dimming lights encourages relaxation and reduces stress hormones whilst increasing oxytocin (the hormone needed for effective contractions).

Massage. Asking your birth partner to massage you through this time will encourage relaxation.

Birthing ball. Gently rocking side to side can help baby settle into an optimal position for labour.

Rest. Use meditation or breathing techniques to help rest through early labour. Preserve your energy as your baby will be here before you know it.

Call. If you are experiencing any symptoms other than the ones described here or you would like to be assessed, please call your local maternity unit.

Please do not hesitate to contact one of our Midwives here at Juno if you require support advice or assistance regarding all things early labour related.