By Janice Neumann
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for — after nine long months of pregnancy, your precious newborn is almost here. Your due date is fast approaching, and you’re on the lookout for the first signs that labor is underway. However, the final weeks and days of pregnancy can bring on bouts of abdominal tightening, gas and other discomforts that can feel like contractions — but aren’t. So how can you tell the difference? Here are 7 signs that your baby is on the way.
For the majority of women, contractions are a sure sign that labor has begun. While every woman experiences contractions differently, they most often feel like an especially painful menstrual cramp, or a dull ache in your lower back or abdomen. Early contractions may occur 20 to 30 minutes apart, and will last for more than 30 seconds each. As labor progresses, your contractions should last longer and occur more frequently, eventually lasting up to 90 seconds and coming about 5 minutes apart. This is advanced labor, and the time when you’ll want to be at the hospital.
Because many women in the late stages of pregnancy experience false contractions (also known as Braxton Hicks contractions), it’s important to know the difference between contractions that signal labor, and those that don’t.
False contractions feel more like a tightening in the abdominal area, or a mild menstrual cramp. They are irregular in their intensity and infrequent. They’re usually more uncomfortable, rather than painful, and they tend to taper off and disappear, rather than increase in intensity or frequency.
To help ease the pain from false contractions, you can try several things, including changing positions (sit if you’ve been standing, or take a walk if you’ve been sitting), taking a short, warm bath (30 minutes or less), drinking water (Braxton Hicks contractions can be triggered by dehydration) or drinking a cup of warm tea or milk.
During pregnancy, a mucus plug blocks the cervical opening, helping to block bacteria from the uterus. As your cervix begins to thin in preparation for childbirth, the plug is often expelled as a clear, pink or blood-tinged mucus-y discharge. For some women, this discharge occurs hours before labor; for others, it can happen days or weeks before labor begins.
The rupture of the amniotic membrane (the fluid-filled sac that surrounds the baby during pregnancy) is another signal that labor is underway. While a noticeable gush of water is often a signal of the start of labor in movies and on TV shows, the truth is most women don’t experience a dramatic gush of amniotic fluid, but rather a steady trickle of odorless, clear fluid. After your water breaks, it still may take up to 24 hours for delivery to occur — but you should head to the hospital immediately.
And, if you’re experiencing other symptoms of labor (like intense, frequent contractions), don’t wait for your water to break to head to the hospital. Not all women have their water break as they begin labor; often, the doctor will rupture the amniotic membrane before delivery.
As you near the end of your pregnancy, your baby settles lower into your pelvis — this process is called lightening. Lightening occurs in the last few weeks before delivery. Because lightening causes the uterus to weigh on the bladder, you may feel the need to urinate more frequently after lightening has occurred.
During the final couple months of pregnancy, effacement occurs — your cervix gets shorter and begins to thin out in preparation for childbirth. Effacement is measured as a percentage ranging from 0 percent (no change to the cervix) to 100 percent (the cervix is completely thinned and ready for vaginal delivery). Contractions help to spur these changes to your cervix. During this time, you won't be able to feel any changes to your cervix; your percentage of effacement can only be determined by your health care provider.
While you won't be able to feel it, in the days or weeks ahead of labor, your cervix gradually begins to dilate. This dilation increases as you start to experience contractions. Dilation is measured in centimeters. You are fully dilated and ready to give birth when your cervix has opened to 10 centimeters.
While you’ve probably spent a lot of your pregnancy resting, and may be napping more often than you did before, you might start feeling more energetic as labor nears. You may start making and enacting urgent to-do lists to prepare for the baby (things that need to be bought, or things that need to be cleaned, for example). This feeling can occur a few months before childbirth, but is strongest as you get closer to delivery. Despite this sudden urge to take action, try remember that you’ll need all the rest you can get before the baby arrives!
If you’re over 37 weeks pregnant and your contractions have been coming every five minutes for an hour, you should head to the hospital. You should also head to the hospital if your water has broken (even though delivery could still be hours way).
During the final months of pregnancy, it’s especially important to watch out for any warning signs that could point to complications. If the following occurs, call your doctor or head to the hospital:
Published July 17, 2012.