Learn the signs and symptoms of labor, so you’re ready to head to the hospital and meet your baby.
It’s almost the end of the episode. The friends have all made it through the funny argument and everything is back to normal. Out of frame, the pregnant friend says, “Guys? Guys?” and they all turn to her laughing, because what could possibly be the problem? They made up! They’re all friends again. It was just a misunderstanding. What does the over dramatic pregnant woman want their attention for?
“I think my water just broke.” Everyone looks at each other. And roll credits.
If you were born in the 80s or 90s, television taught everyone that when your water breaks, you’re about one half-hour episode — including a frantic, hilarious car ride — away from being a mother. We’ve all learned that’s what “going into labor” means, but there is a lot more to it than television has led us to believe.
In casual conversation, going into labor encompasses everything that happens as the body prepares for birth until the baby is born. For medical purposes though, labor is considered the active preparation and act of childbirth. Much of what we consider as “going into labor” are simply signs that labor is approaching, but are medically not considered labor.
Today, let’s look at the signs leading up to labor, including when you should head to the hospital.
Common Signs of Approaching Labor
Just as every person is different, every pregnancy is different. There are several signs that are common at the end of pregnancy, but they can occur in any order, and in any manner of time frames. An expectant mother may experience all, some, or even none of these symptoms. Each of them, though, are ways the body is signaling it is ready for childbirth.
Lightening is the term used for when the baby drops or moves lower into the mother’s pelvis. According to the American Pregnancy Association, this can be indicated by a change in appearance, a greater easiness for breathing and/or a newfound pressure felt on the bladder as the baby moves into position for birth. Lightening can happen a few weeks before labor begins, but may also occur just before birth.
Many women get an unusual burst of energy before childbirth, during which they have a strong drive to get the home ready for the new baby. Mothers may want to do things like cook meals or organize the home or finish the nursery. While this natural drive is common, mothers should be careful not to overdo it. Pregnant women should try to save as much of that “nesting” energy as they are able to, as labor and childbirth are just around the corner.
Many mothers near the end of their pregnancies may have an increase in vaginal discharge that’s clear, pink or slightly bloody. It is normal, and referred to as show or bloody show. This isn’t a reason to begin your birth plan, however. This can happen at the beginning of labor, but it may also happen days before. Let your physician know about it at your next checkup.
At a prenatal checkup, a health care provider may mention that the mother’s cervix has begun to efface (thin) and dilate (open). This is again a sign that the body is getting ready for labor. However, a mother may dilate slowly, over the course of many days. Before labor, the cervix is about 3.5 to 4 centimeters long. Once labor starts, contractions help open the cervix to 10 centimeters.
Soft bowel movements, restlessness and difficulty sleeping can also be signs of approaching labor. Rest is especially important at the final phase of pregnancy, because labor can be exhausting.
Signs of Labor
If your water breaks, yes — head to the hospital. It is almost always a sign of imminent labor. If the water breaks and the mother is not in labor, the physician may choose to begin inducing labor for the health and safety of the baby. The longer it takes for labor to begin after this episode, the greater the risk of baby or mother to develop an infection.
However, most women don’t experience their labor beginning with a big gush of water in the freezer section of the supermarket with a laugh track playing in the background. Most women go to the hospital with pain and contractions. Pain in the belly and lower back that cannot be alleviated by changing positions is a good indicator that a mother’s body is actively preparing for childbirth. It is a good idea whenever a mother is experiencing severe pain that she seek out the advice of a medical professional.
Bloody show is a strong possibility to happen at the start of labor, if it hasn’t already happened. At this stage, it is likely to be darker, browner or reddish, and thickened by mucus. The miracle of birth is likely nearing.
Contractions are the main reason women begin their birth plan. Strong and regular contractions are much different than other contractions an expectant mother has felt during the pregnancy. The muscles of the uterus are now contracting to push the baby out ever so slowly. When labor is in its height, contractions last 30 seconds to a minute and at regular five- to 10-minute intervals. A rule of thumb is, if you can talk through a contraction, keep an eye on it. If you can no longer talk through your contraction, you need to get to the hospital.
Real life isn’t always as dramatic as it seems on television, but when an expectant mother’s health is being considered, it’s best to know what to expect before labor begins. Strong, consistent contractions and a dilated cervix are the best signifier that baby is on its way. For anything that feels out of the ordinary, it is always an excellent idea to contact a physician — especially during the last days of a pregnancy. Contact us if you have any concerns about your pregnancy.