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Woman in false labour

The signs leading up to real labour can be confusing – especially if it’s your first baby. Many women mistake the signs of false labour for those of the real thing. It’s very easily done, and can result in a race to hospital – only for you to be sent home again because your labour has not yet started in earnest.

To save you time and trouble, here are some guidelines to help you spot false labour:

What are Braxton Hicks contractions?

The most common signs of false labour, Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and will not become more frequent as time passes. They can also disappear if you change your activity or rest.

By comparison, the real contractions tend to start out as irregular but gradually become more intense, last for longer and will become closer together. Changing your activity or resting will not make them go away.

To find out whether you’re having false or real contractions, time them, making a note of how and when they occur.

Signs that you’re going into proper labour

Look out for some or all of the following:

  • Mild contractions that start lengthening over time. These help your cervix prepare before it starts to dilate.
  • Pain in your lower back or abdominal pain along with cramps and a pre-menstrual feeling.
  • An upset stomach or diarrhoea.
  • Feelings of high emotion or moodiness – usually more common with your first baby.
  • Your waters break, although this can also happen before labour starts. It can feel like anything from a gush to a trickle of amniotic fluid.
  • You have a ‘show’. This means that the plug of mucus in the cervix, which has helped to seal the uterus during pregnancy, has come away and out of your vagina. You’ll see a small amount of sticky pink, brown or blood-tinged mucus and cells.

A show happens before or in early labour and is a sign that the cervix is preparing to open. However, you should only see a little bit of blood mixed in with the mucus, so if you lose more blood, and it looks red like when you have a period, it may be a sign that something is wrong. So phone your midwife or hospital straight away.

When should you call the midwife?

  • If your waters break.
  • If your baby is moving less than usual. Count the number of movements you can feel when lying down quietly over a 10-minute period and if your baby seems less active, phone the midwife urgently.
  • Vaginal bleeding. (Unless it’s the tiny little bit of blood associated with the show.)
  • You feel feverish, or are having changes in vision, severe headaches plus abdominal pain. (Or if you monitor your blood pressure at home and it goes up.)

The midwife or doctor will want to know how far apart your contractions are, over a period of time, so if you can, time these before calling.

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