Healthy Pregnancy Series: Signs of Labor

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Okay, we’re getting serious here!  Towards the end of pregnancy already!  When you’re waiting for labor (which we’re going to talk about very soon), it can be very hard.  You know it’s almost time, you’re as big as house (or so you think), you’re exhausted, you have to pee again the second you finish….  Seeing signs of labor would be so very welcome! But if it’s your first baby, you may not quite know what to look for when that big moment comes!  On TV they make it look so obvious.  The woman just suddenly stops, says, “I think the baby’s coming!” has a huge contraction out of nowhere (and regular, 2-minute-apart contractions from there on out) and her water often breaks in a huge gush, and the baby is born quickly after a mad dash to the hospital.  There are no false alarms, slow starts, or “Well, I think this is it….” Of course, real life is a tad bit different!  If you’ve had a baby before you’re probably laughing right now.  Because, in fact, it’s very different.  In fact, every labor can be so different that even moms who have had a couple (or five) babies can be surprised and still wonder, “Is it…?” So, just to clear things up a little, let’s talk about signs of labor! Are you eating a healthy pregnancy diet?  Get tips on including more super foods in your diet, plus 30 super-food-filled recipes in Healthy Pregnancy Super Foods.

Signs of Labor

Now…you should only see these when you are past 37 weeks.  If you see any of these before 37 weeks, call your doctor immediately, and go to a hospital if you cannot reach him/her.  It may be a false alarm, but you don’t want to risk pre-term labor (next week’s topic).  If you note these after 37 weeks, it’s okay to watch, wait, and see what happens, but don’t hesitate to call if either 1) they asked you to, or 2) you feel uneasy waiting. You may notice:

  • The baby “dropping” or settling lower in your pelvis (usually a few days to a few weeks before labor starts)
  • A sudden “burst of energy,” often called nesting
  • A feeling that labor is near
  • Loose bowels
  • Increase in cervical mucus, especially if tinged with blood (losing your mucus plug)
  • Mild contractions that are regular, and growing stronger, longer and closer together.  They do not go away if you move around, lie down, or change positions (if they do it’s not real labor)
  • A trickle or gush of fluid (your water breaking)
  • Cramping and/or back pain that won’t go away
  • Feeling of intense pressure very low (baby’s head pressing down)

For the first 5, there is no reason to rush to call your doctor — even if you are not quite at your due date yet.  These are not signs that anything “is” happening, just that it might happen soon.  It is normal, especially in first pregnancies, for the baby to drop by 32 – 34 weeks, but it does not mean you will deliver early (Bekah dropped at 34 weeks and was born just after 39 weeks).  A feeling that labor is near, or a burst of energy can also happen a few weeks before labor, or multiple times, or just because you’re plain sick of being pregnant!  Again, no rush to call. As far as losing your mucus plug, you may lose it over the course of several days and not notice.  You may lose a big glob at once.  It is possible to lose days before labor, or when you are already in active labor.  You may want to call if it is before your due date just to check in, so that you’re not caught off guard if pre-term labor does start.  But it’s not an emergency. Contractions, your water breaking, intense back pain, and intense pressure low are all signs that the baby is coming soon, and that you are in real labor.  Make sure that your contractions are real (though again, if pre-term, just call) before calling your doctor or going anywhere.  If they’re erratic, or go away when you change positions, they’re just “practice,” called Braxton-Hicks.  A fun note: you’ll experience these Braxton-Hicks earlier and earlier in each subsequent pregnancy.  It’s not uncommon to feel them at the beginning of the second trimester in third, fourth, or fifth pregnancies!  (Just extra fun!) There is no way to guess exactly how your labor will go based on how your contractions start.  Some women do start with rather erratic, far apart contractions (that don’t go away while changing positions!), like 5 min., 15 min., 8 min., etc.  And yet, they settle into a regular pattern soon and have their babies in a few hours.  A very rare few never settle into a regular pattern and still deliver quickly! Others start labor with contractions two minutes apart and strong.  But they might be in labor for 12 hours or more.  (Yes…this happened to me!) Back pain can be a sign of back labor, and you may not feel “normal” contractions.  But, you may still be dilating.  Intense, low pressure can mean your water is about to break, or your baby is extra low because your are dilating (even if you don’t feel the contractions, which happens very rarely). Once baby’s here, you’ll need to know what to feed him or her!  Check out Breast to Bib: Modern Alternative Mama’s Guide to Feeding Your Baby.  With topics like breastfeeding benefits, low milk supply, what to do if you can’t (or don’t want to) breastfeed, starting solids, and more, it’s just what you need to feed your baby well from day 1.

How Do I Know It’s Real?

Many women want to be sure this is the real thing.  There are a few ways to tell:

  • Your water breaks (and you’re sure you didn’t wet yourself!)
  • Contractions are strong and consistent, even if not very close together yet
  • You check yourself and note that your cervix is changing

Those are the best ways to tell for sureSeveral women wake up late in pregnancy, wet, thinking their water broke — but did, unfortunately, just wet the bed!  (Embarrassing?  Yes.  Sorry.  It’s a good idea to keep a waterproof pad on your bed late in pregnancy in case you wet the bed or your water really does break.)  Some midwives will give you some little papers which check for amniotic fluid.  If you dribble on them (so ladylike!) and they turn a certain color, it will prove your water has broken. Once you’re in real labor, nothing will stop your contractions.  You can lie down, walk around, sip water, change positions — and they will not let up.  They will get your attention and they will come regularly.  Yes, that’s real labor too! You can also learn to check yourself, to see if your cervix is dilating or effacing.  Effacing is harder to tell.  Basically — wash your hands and sit on the toilet in a comfortable position.  Reach up high until you find your cervix.  If you’ve used natural family planning to avoid or conceive, you may already be familiar with this.  When you reach your cervix you’ll know, it will feel a bit harder than the rest of the tissue.  You may also be able to feel something very hard — your baby’s head! When you find your cervix, note how long it is.  That is, how much you feel before your baby’s head.  It will get shorter and shorter as labor progresses until there’s none left.  You can also note how “open” it is.  You’ll feel a small hole in the center, that will get larger as labor progresses.  You can estimate how many centimeters dilated you are from this.  If you check late in pregnancy before going into labor, it is possible to be 3 – 5 cm dilated and not have your baby for weeks!  But it is also possible to be completely closed and have your baby in a matter of hours, so unless you’re in active labor, this is not a reliable sign of how soon your baby is coming.

What Do I Do Now?

We’ll talk more about coping with pain and pain management options in labor later.  But as for the immediate “what do I do,” it depends. If you are planning a hospital birth, and are fairly certain you’re in labor, call your doctor to let him know.  Some don’t want to hear from you until you’re on your way in, so note his policies before calling. Relax.  If it’s night time or you are tired, try to sleep.  If you can’t, at least rest.  If you’re not tired, go on about your normal activities as long as you are in early labor.  Make lunch, fold some laundry, do other light chores.  Watch a movie, call a friend, do some scrapbooking. When you are unable to concentrate on all of this other “stuff,” try walking around, rocking, or sitting on a birthing ball (again, we’ll talk about coping mechanisms later).  When you have to focus completely on labor, it’s time to go to the hospital, if you’re going (or call your midwives if you’re not!). As long as you can, don’t worry about labor!  When it’s serious, you will have no other choice! Baby’s here?  You might need A Practical Guide to Children’s Health to help give him or her the best start in life.  With over 300 primary sources, it’s a well-researched guide to feeding, allergies, vaccines, home remedies, school, discipline, and more.  Get the PDF, or the paperback.

What signs of labor did you notice first?  How quickly did you realize it was “the real thing?”

   

Comments

  1. Heather says

    I was already 3 cm at my last dr. visit i was 36 1/2 weeks when i had my son. I actually didn't even realize I was in labor. I was talking to my mom on the phone telling her about my last dr. visit. I told her i was having a cramp. It felt like a period cramp. She started telling me I should have my husband stay home from work. I told her nah it's not labor. It would hurt a lot more. lol Well after realizing these cramps were coming at regular intervals I called the dr. I called my husband to come home from work. I got to the hospital about 6:30 pm. I was already dialated 8 cm. The dr. came in and broke my water (i think she just wanted to go home :-( ) I pushed for about an hour and had my beautiful little son. We were blessed to have a quick and easy labor. We're hoping to have another child soon (no luck yet) but we're definitely looking at a midwife this time around. While the Dr. wasn't horrible she didn't really want to let the delivery progress at my pace and she kept offering me drugs eventhough it stated in my birthplan I didn't want to be offered any.

  2. Michelle G. says

    It felt like bad menstrual cramps– which was weird, since I hadn't had cramps in about 10 months! I knew something was up. After a few hours, they were NOT going away and they were getting worse. After showering, walking, trying to lie down (haha, way too uncomfortable), they were continuing to intensify and I knew it would be soon. For a first timer, I had a pretty fast labor–about 11 hours total.

  3. says

    I woke up around 1 am and had to pee and then had a clean out session from both ends (sorry if tmi). I tried to lay back down but just couldn't get comfortable. I had low back pain like period cramps and the pains just kept getting harder and harder. Eventually, I woke my husband up, we both showered and then went to the hospital around 6:30 am. I ended up having Dylan in about 9 hours so like Michelle above, mine was pretty quick. I definitely credit it to staying fairly active throughout the pregnancy. I mean, geez, I was camping and kayaking the weekend before he was born and he was born Monday morning :)

  4. Lindsey says

    With my first, my water broke as I was trying to fall asleep that night. Within 5 minutes I'd had bloody show/lost my plug, loose stools and started having mild contractions. He was born 10 or so hours later (active labor starting around midnight).

    With my second, I was so excited/nervous to see how labor would start! I thought the weirdest would be to wake up in the middle of the night contracting and that's exactly what happened. Active labor was shorter (like 3.5-4 hours) and my water didn't break until I was pushing. So different!

  5. Lindsey says

    Oops, I forgot to say…I had loose stools with BOTH boys, and actually I was unsure I was even *really* in labor with my second until the pooping started. And continued. For a good two hours. :-P

  6. says

    I had about a week of prodomal labor. No one had ever told me about that! I went to the hospital after four days and was sent home at 5 cm because I wasn't "screaming." Just as well, because the contractions continued, off and on, for three more days before the baby was finally born! The only way I was really sure to go in to the hospital was that I went to my ob/gyn appointment and was dilated to a six! He told me to go right on in, he'd call ahead for us. ;) The baby was born about nine hours later.

    Next time, I want to have a home birth. One of the real advantages to that is that I don't have to worry about when to go in to the hospital. Before, I didn't want to wait too late because I didn't want to feel rushed or hit transition in the car. At home, I can call as late as I want.

  7. says

    Great article. My wife is less than 1 month from her due date and the other night she had really bad indigestion and thought it could be labor. Thankfully it went away after a couple hours.

  8. says

    So funny! With my first I was in labor for about 30 hours — 15 of early stage (mild contractions 15-20 minutes apart) and 15 of "active" labor — lots of back labor the whole way through. My water didn't break until I was fully dilated, right before pushing. Pushed for about an hour. Pretty "classic" and uneventful.
    My second was completely different! At my 39 week apt. (on a Thurs) I was 1 1/2 cm dilated and my doctor stripped my membranes; she said that if I didn't have the baby in 24 hours that it "didn't work". All weekend I had strong practice contractions and on Saturday some pressure with these practice contractions but they were not regular and stopped if I sat down or laid down. I noticed a minor loose stool before going to be around 11pm Saturday night (but this is not unusual for me). At 2am I awoke having to pee very badly. As I got out of bed my water broke (but I didn't know it b/c it was such a small amount — only my underpants were damp). I went to the bathroom and also pooped. I was having minor "gas pains" and continued to poop, still not thinking I was in labor. I woke my husband and mom up when I started pushing — that was the first time I thought I was actually in labor! Asher was born at 3:55am, at home, after only a few pushes…

  9. says

    I was in labor for almost twenty four hours. My husband and I planned to give birth to my child on September 1 but because I had such a hard time in labor, my now seven months baby took a little longer to get out from my belly. It was good though that we went through a series of pregnancy classes. My husband was very calm the entire time which helped me contain myself. I’d suggest women to insist that their husbands be as informed as them.

  10. Pam says

    All pregnant women should read this!! It is especially important to be aware of the signs early in pregnancy too, and THANK YOU for mentioning that! I have had so many moms of preemies report that they wish they had been better educated on the signs of labor. They would have gone to the hospital or called the doctor sooner and perhaps prevented a premature birth.

    Speaking of different… I had labor signs with only one of my pregnancies.

    I was induced for medical reasons with 1st, had only 2hrs of “labor” before she was born. I had no labor with 2nd, was 5cm dialated and bulging bag at 36 week doctor appt, sent to hospital for monitoring overnight, by morning I was fully dialated but not contracting at all and bag of water still intact, got epidural in prep for “induction”, a few minutes later the baby just kinda fell out. That was my shortest hospital stay too, went home in less than 24 hours.

    My 3rd one is the only time I felt any signs of labor… and it was indeed early labor… at 25 weeks :( Thankfully it was stopped, but I was on procardia and modified bedrest until 37 weeks. At 37 weeks I came off meds and resumed full activity. I had zero contractions, zero cramping, absolutely no signs of any impending labor for over a week. Then baby came just like in the movies. One night at 2am my water broke (yes, gushed) at home, hard core contractions 1-2 mins apart started within 5 minutes, hubby ran stoplights on way to hospital, 5cm dialated on arrival, baby born 25 minutes later. However, an almost 9lb baby barrelling thru the birth canal in less than 30 minutes caused some significant tearing down there, needing LOTS of stitches, and I had to stay an extra day in the hospital to be sure I was healing properly.

    Yes indeed, labors are oh so different!

  11. helen says

    I am currently 36 weeks pregnant with my 4th child,Logan has already dropped. However I am capable of feeling early signs of labor as it’s below my pain threshold so I am kind of nervous as I’m getting the feeling that the time for pregnancy is coming to an end rather shortly. I am also trying to avoid any preterm labor but as stated above contractions I don’t really feel.I am just feeling a lot of pressure. I also have a funny sensation that makes me think my water is bulging. This entire pregnancy has been so different from anything I have experienced with my others. I am just getting nervous as the time gets closer. So I’m hoping Logan makes his arrival soon.

    • says

      I felt like that a lot in my third pregnancy — lots of pressure and wondering if I’d go early. But baby held out until 40 weeks. :) Have you seen a chiropractor? Do whatever makes you feel comfortable while you wait!

  12. Brittany says

    My water broke and I realized when everytime I moved, fluid just kept gushing and wouldn’t stop. They did the swab and sure enough it broke. 17 hours of labor but only half an hour of pushing and my little girl entered the world. Really wasn’t as bad as I expected

  13. AlliM says

    I’m currently 39 weeks and 3 days with my first baby, and I just want to say I really appreciate the encouraging stories from you ladies! It makes me more confidant for when my time comes. Thank you!

  14. Natalie says

    I’ve read through the stories and I just wanted to share so that others can be prepared for very fast births… my first was right on 37 weeks waters broke at 7pm without pain or warning he was born at 8.18pm! My second was born at 38 weeks waters broke he was born in 2.17mins, My third was born at 39weeks I lost some hynd waters had high BP with regular contractions they broke waters at 6pm at my son was born 3hrs later. I’m currently 37weeks with baby very low in pelvis and prepared for anything!!

  15. Jolene says

    I am 37+4 weeks and I am not sure whats going on; Last sunday I lost part of plug, have had contractions alot but not consistant; last three days ive had soft stools, nausea pelvic pressure, abdominal pains, etc. could it be the start of labor for SOFT Stools not LOOSE
    Thanks

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