9 months or 40 weeks or 280 days. However you calculate it, for your baby to be born, pregnancy ends and labor starts.
The images we’ve seen over a lifetime affect how we view childbirth – and whether or not we fear it.
We’ve all seen sitcoms where a woman’s water breaks in the middle of the grocery store.
Or where the laboring woman is yelling at her partner and they’re rushing to get to the hospital.
Will the start of labor really be so dramatic or so painful?
The short answer is probably not.
Pre-Labor in the Last Weeks of Pregnancy
Labor typically starts gradually, maybe without you even realizing it’s happening. This is known as pre-labor.
In the final weeks of pregnancy, your body starts to prepare for labor and birth. Learning to recognize these changes allows you to adapt to the process slowly.
You may feel more fatigued than normal, and your lower back or hips may start to hurt more.
Your pelvis may already feel stretched.
Then your baby may ‘drop’ lower into the pelvis (sometimes called lightening or engaging).
This gives you more room to take a deep breath but puts more pressure on the ligaments of your pelvis and on your bladder.
You may feel like you need to go to the bathroom more often, and you may need to wear a panty liner because you dribble a little any time you sneeze, cough or laugh.
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You may feel a strong urge to clean and organize.
Nesting may sound like an old wives tale but it’s a common occurrence in the final weeks of pregnancy.
80% of women experience a burst of productive energy in the last weeks before the baby’s birth.
If you find yourself sorting baby clothes, cleaning out closets and cupboards, vacuuming corners and furniture … consider that it might mean your baby will be here soon.
Try not to overdo it.
The hormones of pregnancy make you a little clumsier and more prone to injuries such as sprains and strains.
If you’re fatigued, slow down and allow yourself some recovery time before moving on to the next big project.
2. Flu-Like Feelings
Some women describe having flu-like symptoms in the days before labor starts.
Indigestion, nausea, and diarrhea are common as hormones shift to bring on labor.
You may note more vaginal discharge, or loss of your mucous plug.
Your tightly closed cervix has been sealed with mucous throughout pregnancy, and as the cervix begins to change for birth, this is dislodged.
Some women experience it as ‘bloody show’ – pink tinged mucus or spotting. Some just notice they have more discharge when they use the bathroom.
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3. Braxton Hicks
If you’ve had some Braxton-Hicks contractions during pregnancy, you may notice them happening more often.
These irregular contractions will go away if you change position, relax your muscles, or drink some water or juice.
They don’t get any more intense over time, and are more annoying than painful.
You can think of these as practice contractions.
Try out some breathing or relaxation exercises when you notice them.
You’re more likely during labor to use comfort measures you’ve already become familiar with through rehearsal.
4. Cervical Changes
As labor nears, your cervix will begin to soften and eventually open.
Some women describe having strong menstrual-like cramps in the final days of pregnancy, likely due to these physical changes.
During pregnancy, your cervix feels hard, like the tip of your nose and it’s tightly closed. When labor begins if feels more like your earlobe, and begins to open.
If your healthcare provider is doing internal exams during your final weeks of pregnancy, he or she is looking for these changes.
Childbirth professionals refer to this softening as ‘thinning’ or ‘effacement’ and it’s usually measured as a percentage.
The other cervical measurement is the opening or dilation – from 0cm to 10cm.
It’s possible to be slightly dilated before labor officially starts. So, don’t get too excited when your provider says you’re 2 cm dilated and 50 percent effaced at your 36-week check-up.
5. Waters Breaking
In only about 10 percent of pregnancies does a woman’s water break before labor is underway.
If your water breaks, call your doctor or midwife. He or she may want you to be seen soon after, or may give you instructions for when to proceed to your birthplace.
If your water breaks before 37 weeks, your provider will likely want to intervene to prevent preterm labor so that your baby is not born too early.
If you are beyond 37 weeks, however, you will likely be instructed on what signs to expect in the following hours.
Most of the time, labor begins within 24 hours of a woman’s water breaking. If contractions do not begin for you, your provider may want you to have labor artificially started (commonly called induction).
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Ultimately, you’re not in labor until you’re having regular contractions that get longer, stronger and closer together over time.
In early labor, contractions will be mild, lasting only 30 to 45 seconds and happening infrequently.
You may feel anticipation, relief, excitement and maybe a little apprehension. As the contractions get stronger and more frequent, you are moving into active labor.
Contractions now are 2 to 5 minutes apart and may last 45 to 60 seconds at a time.
You will be growing more focused on the work of birth, and may need to concentrate on getting through each contraction.
This is when most women go to their birth center or hospital (unless you’re planning a home birth).
Talk to your doctor or midwife in the last weeks of pregnancy to discuss when they want to be notified that you’re in labor.
Occasionally women think they are in labor, and they hurry to their birth location only to be told to go home and labor more.
You will be more comfortable staying home until you absolutely need medical assistance.
Being in your own home environment will be much more relaxing so when you finally do get to the hard work of labor, it won’t be long before you meet your baby!