Ready Steady Baby


Early signs of labour

Labour happens in 3 stages. The first stage is usually the longest. You’ve probably heard stories about women who are in labour for many hours and others who have their babies within minutes. Most are somewhere in between.

There’s no such thing as a typical labour and birth – they’re all different. The important thing is that while they vary, they’re all normal. Take it one step at a time and one contraction at a time. You’re not alone – your midwife will be there to guide you and support you.

How you may be feeling

It’s okay to feel nervous about the birth, especially if:

  • it seems to be taking forever
  • you’re scared about how much it might hurt

It’s also quite normal to decide at this point that you’d like your baby to just stay in there, even though it’s not an option. Try to keep the end goal in your mind, and discuss your concerns with your partner and midwife.

Signs that labour’s starting

Labour can start very quickly, but is often slow at the start (particularly if it’s your first baby). Sometimes it can start without you realising it.

Labour may be starting if:

  • you have a show
  • your waters break
  • you start to have contractions

When you’re in labour, wear something cool and comfortable like an old T-shirt.

A show

A show is when the mucus plug that seals the opening of your cervix comes out of your vagina. It can come out as a single blob of pinkish jelly or in smaller pieces. It’s sometimes reddish brown and blood-tinged.

It’s a sign your cervix is beginning to stretch and soften to get ready for labour. 

It can be anything from an hour to several days between the show and the start of labour.

Your waters break

The amniotic sac is the bag of fluid that surrounds your baby in the womb. When the skin of the sac breaks, the fluid comes out. This can happen as a sudden gush of liquid but it’s more usual for it to start to trickle.

Contact your midwife or midwifery unit so that you and baby can be checked over if:

  • your waters break and the colour’s clear
  • your baby’s moving as usual

You can also plan what to do if you don’t go into labour within 24 hours.

When to get medical help

Contact your midwife or midwifery unit immediately if:

  • your waters break and the colour’s green
  • you’re bleeding heavily
  • you’re worried about your baby’s movements

It’s unusual for your waters to break before your baby’s full term. If you think this has happened contact your midwife or midwifery unit straight away.

Your contractions start

Contractions are the regular tightening of your womb as it:

  • works to open and thin out your cervix (the neck of your womb)
  • push your baby down the birth canal

It’s a sure sign that your labour’s started if they gradually come closer together and last longer. You should feel them getting stronger, longer and more rhythmical.

More about contractions

False alarms

Sometimes women start to have contractions and then they fade away. These can be deceptive, and make you think you are in labour. You go to hospital, only to find everything stops.

If this happens to you, you may be examined and disappointed that you aren’t very far on in your labour.

Maybe your cervix doesn’t show that the contractions have had any effect at all.

In this situation it might be recommended that you go home and await labour restarting.

This is sensible unless you live a long way from the hospital. Don’t feel embarrassed, or worry. This sort of false alarm happens all the time.

More about Braxton Hicks contractions

Early labour

If you think you’re in labour and you’re not sure what to do, contact the maternity unit or your midwife about your symptoms. They’ll tell you what to do next.

Your midwife may:

  • come and examine you at home and help you decide the best place to be
  • suggest you go into the maternity unit to get checked

When you’re examined you may find you’re not very far along at all and it can be boring and frustrating waiting for things to happen. Sometimes your body needs to warm up and prepare for labour.

Established labour

As your labour goes on:

  • your cervix dilates
  • your contractions will get longer and stronger
  • things start to move more quickly.

This is called established labour.

Relaxing in labour

To help you relax in labour:

  • Take deep relaxing breaths
  • Have a bath or shower
  • Get in to your birthing pool, if you have one – the water can help to ease the strength of contractions
  • Use your relaxation and breathing techniques
  • Use hypnotherapy or aromatherapy if you’ve talked to your midwife about it and you know how to use them
  • Have something to eat or drink, or go for a walk
  • Use your TENS machine if you have one


Between the first and second stage of labour is an intense time that’s sometimes called transition.

For many women it clearly feels different from other parts of their labour. You may feel:

  • like you want to push
  • that your labour has stopped altogether

Transition’s a mental state as well as a physical one and it can be very intense. You may feel:

  • impatient
  • tired
  • irritable
  • angry and frustrated with the staff and your birthing partner

This is a natural reaction and it means that the birth of your baby’s close.

Your midwife will guide you through this stage by helping you through your contractions and encouraging you to find the best position.

Remember it’s okay to let people know how you’re feeling. If you don’t want anyone to touch you, including your birthing partner, let them know.

Translations and alternative formats of this information are available from Public Health Scotland.

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Last updated:
19 December 2023