A common saying is if you have to ask "Is this it?" then it's not! However, the question of "Is this labour?" is not always easy to answer. Each individual woman's body differs and does not always behave in a textbook manner. Even the most experienced caregivers can get it wrong!
Most women experience some form of prelabour in the hours or days prior to starting their 1st stage of labour. Occasionally a woman will start the early or active 1st stage of labour without a clear build up preceding it. Often though in hindsight, women will identify having some vague physical signs such as backache or cramping sensations. At the time they may have put these down to late pregnancy discomforts rather than prelabour signs.
Prelabour can be one or a number of physical signs. The key point to remember is that in this phase it is 'just the beginning'. The labouring woman's body is getting ready to labour, just as her baby is becoming ready for the journey out of their protective environment and into the outside world.
From about 8 weeks of pregnancy the uterus begins to generate small waves of contractions. These are known as Braxton-Hicks contractions (after the person who named them). Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually painless, however some women find them quite painful, particularly in the last half of their pregnancy.
The uterus is a large group of muscles and Braxton-Hicks contractions are a way of toning these muscles as well as stimulating your unborn baby. Every time your baby feels the uterus tightening around them, it helps to stimulate their circulation, similar to a massage.
Women often describe Braxton-Hicks contractions as a tightness or hardness or a slight cramping of their belly. Some liken it to a tight band pulling on their uterus which usually stops if they change what they are doing. For example, if you have been walking and you feel a Braxton-Hicks contraction, sometimes when you stop so does the contraction.