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Help! How will I know when it’s time to go to hospital?

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When to go to hospital

It’s a stormy night and a sleek Jaguar creeps along the road, avoiding the carnage with breathtaking precision. A beautiful young actress clad in a shimmering evening gown, turns to her angular jawed partner and gasps ‘It’s coming!’ Moments later, following two or three tumultuous contractions, several commercial breaks and plot deviations, she gives birth to a suspiciously calm and mature baby in an unbelievably clean and easy manner. And so begins our rather misleading education on labour and when it’s time to go to hospital.

Later on, when we are actually pregnant and attending parent education classes, we get the ‘not too early, not too late, just right’ drill on when to come into hospital. Then labour starts and it’s suddenly very unclear whether we should be ‘bold and beautiful’ or ‘perfectly balanced’ about the whole event.

Here are some helpful hints on how to recognise when it’s time to go to hospital.

How does it all start?

The majority of labours begin between 38 and 42 weeks. Labour begins in a magical way as interplay between the mother and baby. In the last weeks of pregnancy the hormone oestrogen rises, overcoming the relaxing hormone progesterone. Two other hormones oxytocin and prostaglandin initiate contractions associated with true labour. The pressure of the baby’s head on the cervix and the enlarged uterus all contribute to the onset of labour. The baby also releases certain hormones to help start labour. In the few days or weeks before labour onsets some women report habits such as ‘nesting.’ This involves cleaning and organising everything in sight in preparation for the imminent birth.  Husbands get yelled at for dropping their socks in the wrong place and the pantry is cleaned and the products alphabetised! Women may also report feeling a bit spaced out and dreamy as hormones begin to surge. Vaginal discharge may also change and become heavier and more mucousy.


Many women experience days, or even weeks of what is described as ‘pre-labour’ or otherwise poorly termed as ‘false labour’. This phenomenon is responsible for many a dash to the hospital and then slow disappointed journey home.

Pre labour is when Braxton Hicks contractions, that have become a feature of your pregnancy in the last weeks, become stronger and more frequent. They may last a minute or more and whilst uncomfortable they generally don’t stop you from speaking or moving. They also tend to be irregular and start and stop.

Vaginal discharge becomes more prolific during this time. You may also have a show, which is a jelly like, vaginal discharge with some blood in it. A show on its own does not mean, however, that you are in labour.

Whilst pre labour is not true labour, it is not wasted discomfort. All the activity in your uterus and cervix is getting your body and baby ready for the birth. Try to get as much rest as possible during this period. Warm showers or baths can help ease the discomfort and may even get rid of the strong Braxton Hicks for a while. Don’t forget to eat and drink. If you can’t sleep get out some good videos or a good book. Make sure your bag is packed!

Put the answer machine on if the phone calls are driving you mad and try to be patient.

True Labour

True labour, or otherwise termed, as the first stage of labour, is when your Braxton Hicks start to become more regular and intense. Whilst they might have been lasting a minute or more before, they might now be lasting 30-40 seconds but be much more intense. Until those contractions are regular and increasing in length and frequency, causing the cervix to flatten out and open up, women are not actually in established labour. Once labour is established the cervix will open by 0.5 to 1cm per hour. If you come into hospital before your labour has established you may be asked if you would like to go home again. This is not to be unkind; rather, home is often a much more comfortable and relaxing environment for you to be in than hospital. Women also often labour better at home. Research has shown that women who come into hospital before they are 3cm dilated end up with more interventions than women who come in after they are 3cm.

Sometimes contractions start 15 to 20 minutes apart and get progressively closer whilst for others they come 5 minutes apart and rapidly progress to 2-3 minutes apart. The key to recognising true labour is the contractions get stronger, longer and more frequent. Most important is they are regular rather than all over the place as they are with pre-labour. You will find it increasingly hard to talk or move about during a contraction. You may also begin to feel a bit ‘spaced out’ as the endorphins (natural drugs) flood your system.

If this is your first baby and you are between 38-42 weeks pregnant and everything has been straight forward in your pregnancy then you can afford to wait until the contractions are around 5 minutes apart or you feel you are not managing at home any more.  If this is your second or third baby then wait until your contractions are around 7 minutes apart before contacting the hospital. Never be afraid to contact the midwives in the labour ward or birth centre earlier if you are worried.

When not to wait

Don’t hesitate to ring the midwives:

  • If you are having bleeding that is like a period, rather than just a ‘show’
  • If you think your water has broken
  • If your baby is preterm (under 37 weeks)
  • If you have had a complicated pregnancy or previous complications like a caesarean section
  • If you are having twins, triplets or more!
  • If your baby is presenting as a breech (bottom first)
  • If you are feeling pressure in your bowel with a contraction and want to push
  • If you had a very rapid first labour (2-3 hours)
  • If you have Group B Strep and need antibiotics in labour
  • If you are really worried or not coping

Breaking the waters

You will know your waters have broken if your pants feel very wet or you have water trickling down your legs.  Put a pad on at this point and check it in an hour. If it is blood stained or green then ring the hospital straight away. If it is quite wet or you continue to have little trickles of water then phone the midwives on the labour ward.

As vaginal discharge increases dramatically towards full term I commonly get phone calls from women who get up in the morning and feel something run down their legs. Vaginal discharge can pool in the vagina during the night and then trickle out when you stand upright. This discharge tends to be a bit sticky and milky and dries like egg white. This is quite normal. Fluid will generally continue to trickle out and wet your pad if your waters have broken.

If you think you have broken your waters then contact the midwives in the labour ward because they will probably want you to come in and check the baby is okay. They will also confirm the ruptured membranes if you are unsure and discuss your options further.

Labour may start straight away or not for several days after you have broken your waters. Some women will choose to wait a day or two for labour to start by itself while others will be anxious to be induced once the waters have broken.

Remember breaking your waters does not mean you are in labour

Common myths

  • Your due date is very unlikely to be the date you give birth. Approximately 3-5% of babies are born on their due date.
  • Having a show does not mean you are in labour it just means things will probably happen in the next week or two.
  • Breaking your waters does not mean you are in labour or your baby will be born imminently
  • The first contraction is not the time to rush in
  • Rapid births in Jaguars in the middle of storms do happen... but rarely!

The decision about when to go into hospital is not one you have to make on your own. Talk to the midwives in the labour ward or birth centre when you think you are in labour and they will give you more advice. Midwives can often tell just by listening to your voice whether you should come in or wait a bit longer. This will all help you get it ‘just right.’

Dr Hannah Dahlen is the Associate Professor of Midwifery at the University of Western Sydney. She has been a midwife for more than 20 years. Hannah is also an executive member of the Australian College of Midwives, NSW Branch. She has researched women's birth experiences at home and in hospital and published extensively in this area. Hannah's website is www.hannahdahlen.com.au


25 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

betty recard
Oct 5, 2012 10:07pm [ 1 ]

bad pains in my stomach. I went to the hospital and there advised me to return home. I am one center-meter and this is my first baby. i am really worried.

jackie leroy
Jun 6, 2013 3:29am [ 2 ]

I was 2cm dilated yesterday had a stretch n sweep now labouring at home . pains every 6 mins

Jan 7, 2014 4:40am [ 3 ]

Alot of yellow tinted discharge. And sometimes clear. And really thick. Been seeing this since saturday and im 38 weeks and 1 day.

May 18, 2014 10:07am [ 4 ]

I had sex last night. Then had contractions for 6 hours but then they started to go away, and now I had a yellow brownish discharge come out. This is my third baby but what does this mean is the baby close to coming out?

Aug 1, 2014 1:31am [ 5 ]

Hi im 38+4 weeks pregnant I lost plug on Sunday night since then been getting constant cramp pains in lower abdomen But does get really painful at times when sitting standing walking or laying I've been getting tightenings which takes my breath away at times also have back pains..I called the midwife and she said sounds like I'm in labour and to go for a long walk which i have done..I'm just worried about the constant cramp pains

Aug 5, 2014 1:07pm [ 6 ]

my sons girlfriend is 40weeks and has had a milky dischargefor 2 days what this mean

lady b
Sep 6, 2014 10:42pm [ 7 ]

Am already 9months on 3rd of dis month no show at all what can I do And that was my due date.

Terrie Louise Riley
Sep 9, 2014 12:21am [ 8 ]

I am just over 28 weeks pregnant and been having back pains in lower back for over a week, also having bad pains in stomach and loads clear discharge. could it mean prem labour.

Sep 13, 2014 6:49am [ 9 ]

I am 38 weeks and 2 days I lost my plug past week today I started to feel weird I have been having pains In the bottem of my back which happen every 10 15 mins lasting about 40seconds do you think this is the start of my labour

Nov 14, 2014 7:17pm [ 10 ]

Im 33 weeks and Im having backs pains and sleepless night and im worried could it be pre labour?

Dec 15, 2014 10:28am [ 11 ]

Hi im 36 weeks pregnant I lost plug 5 days ago since then been getting constant cramp pains in lower abdomen But does get really painful at times when sitting standing walking or laying I've been getting tightenings which takes my breath away at times also have back pains and feel sick quite a lot can this mean im in labour had a lot of pains threw my whole pregnancy and was told last week i was contracting but it was nothing to worry about and also been tested to see if my baby would be early test came back positive, this is my second baby with my first my hind waters broke then contractions started at 33 weeks, so im very confused xx

Dec 27, 2014 2:38pm [ 12 ]

I'm 38 wks 1 day had slightly pains on both lower body but they didn't last long there coming and going for few seconds, does this mean I might be in labour soon and also my discharge were thick and yellowish

Jan 16, 2015 9:59pm [ 13 ]

I'm 35 weeks. Every time I walk, I can't walk correctly. It hurts. Like a lot of discomfort in the vagina/cervix area. Along with pressures and pain while layind down sometimes.. along with back pain... am I just getting ready?

Feb 26, 2015 3:58am [ 14 ]

I was 40 weeks with my 2nd baby and was still cleaning around the house. I was just keeping myself busy. When my hubby and son arrived home, I just told my hubby to bring me to the hospital which is 15-20 minutes away. After 10 minutes in the car (my hubby piled some towels on my seat), my water broke and felt the baby rapidly came down. I almost gave birth in the elevator towards the birthing unit. It happened fast. Now, I am pregnant with my third(36W3D)and scared that I might give birth anytime, and that if my water breaks, then baby will come out fast. When the water breaks, how long will the baby survive inside before they have to come out?

Jul 25, 2015 7:07pm [ 15 ]

I am 38 weeks pregnant.I have white discharge.what is the reason for that.is my delivery date is near?.

Aug 4, 2015 2:21am [ 16 ]

I am 36 weeks with my second baby and yesterday I had my baby shower. While, we all know that day is a LONG day and can be quite stressful with lots of walking around and up and down. During the day yesterday I noticed a lot of discharge and it was very consistent all day. Could I have just overdone it yesterday? Should I be concerned? I don't feel any contractions....

Aug 24, 2015 3:46pm [ 17 ]

our closest hospital that is equipped for delivery is almost an hour away, im wondering when i would have to think about going, like how far apart for contractions?

Dec 6, 2015 9:00am [ 18 ]

I am 40 weeks pregnant with my first baby and I have had a lot of pressure in my pelvis and lower abdomen with a few contractions off and on. The baby has been very active and when I go to use the bathroom it sometimes feels like I need to push. Should I go ahead to the hospital or wait a little while longer?

Jan 11, 2016 5:23am [ 19 ]

Hi My due date is 2days away 12/01/15. Been experiencing white discharge, back and stomach pains as well as sharp shooting pains in my vagina. No mucous plug, no water yet. Baby very active. Could this be labour?

Jan 11, 2016 4:23pm [ 20 ]

What dose it mean when your 8 months pregnant and your having sharp pain in your vaginal area and alot of pressure in your pelvic area.

Karla quintana
Jan 25, 2016 6:39am [ 21 ]

Hi I'm. 40 weeks +5 days had back and abdomen pain yellowish discharge when do I know when its time to go to the hospital?

Feb 14, 2016 12:57am [ 22 ]

I am 38 weeks and 3 days the past two day I have been having discharge it's a milky white/yellow is this normally and is it sings of labour as I'm not having any pains and baby is moving fine x

May 17, 2016 3:55pm [ 23 ]

I had sex the night before last night then started getting contractions for 12 hours almost straight after sex, I went to my midwife at 9 that morning and was 2cm dilated, had a few cramps throughout the day, irregular contractions and now nothing is happening! I've been drinking rasberry tea leaf and this morning got a lot of brown discharge. Don't know what is going on?!

May 30, 2016 12:43am [ 24 ]

I pregnancy near ending (9 months started), I feeling some time pain some time not feeling, what I do...?? kindly give me details...



Jun 26, 2016 3:45pm [ 25 ]

Hi I'm 39weeks 2days pregnant and I'm having bad pain in my lower stomach and groan area am I in labour

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