As the end of your pregnancy nears, you might feel a little anxious about when labor will actually start. Your third-trimester body probably feels unfamiliar, and you're wondering how you'll know if the time has actually arrived. Well, the good news is that labor almost never starts like they show in the movies. It won't sneak up on you, where you're chatting happily one moment, and clutching your belly and groaning the next. Your body has a very orderly system for preparing for birth, and there are signs that will let you know when labor is near. Here's what to look out for.
Preparing for Labor
In the weeks before labor starts, your body will begin getting ready. This is one task you don't have to remember; your body is taking care of it. These are some of the shifts in your body that will happen in a few weeks to a few days before labor begins.
- The baby "drops." When the baby's head settles down into the pelvis, you'll feel a little more room under your ribs. You may even be able to breathe a little easier. The tradeoff is that you now have a baby head in your pelvis, which can feel a little unsteady and heavy. It's possible that this pressure against your cervix helps stimulate labor.
- Braxton Hicks contractions increase. You've been having these "practice contractions" throughout the whole pregnancy, but you are sure to feel them now. They will feel stronger and longer. Although they'll be attention-getting, they usually aren't painful. Think of it as the muscles of labor tuning up before the big performance.
- Changes in your cervix. As the due date approaches, your doctor or midwife may perform an internal exam to see if your cervix is ripening. That's right, ripening. This means it may be softening, thinning, or even dilating. This is usually a good sign that labor is near, although some women walk around a few centimeters dilated for weeks before birth.
- Pass the mucus plug. As the cervix changes, it will lose the mucus that sealed its opening. This will either come out as a lump of thick mucus or as an increase in vaginal discharge. It may be tinged with blood.
- Bloody show. As your cervix softens and stretches, small capillaries will rupture. This is especially true after an internal exam or sex. If you pass a little blood, don't worry. It can be brown, pink, or bright red. As long as it's not more than a tablespoon, it's nothing to worry about.
- Diarrhea. Charming, right? This is a good sign, though. It means you're getting close. The prostaglandins that help the uterus contract and the cervix to soften can also stimulate the bowels.
Signs That Labor Is Beginning
After weeks of these unusual symptoms, you may be wondering if the real thing will ever begin. When does active labor start?
Many women experience a surge of energy just before labor begins. You may be suddenly interested in organizing or cleaning. Try not to get involved in any big projects, though, because that energy is a gift to carry you through labor. Here's what to look for.
- Contractions. These are going to be significantly stronger, longer, and more intense than the Braxton Hicks contractions you've been having. You'll start to feel pain, not just pressure. You will probably feel it in your lower back because a lot of babies begin labor with their faces up, so the back of the head is pressed against mom's spine. If the contractions are regular and don't slow down or stop when you lie down, eat something, and drink some water, congratulations! You seem to be in labor. Let your doctor or midwife know right away, but you probably won't need to go to the hospital just yet.
- Water breaks. The amniotic sac may rupture. This is a tricky one, because it might start to leak before contractions begin. Then again, it may never rupture on its own, and your doctor or midwife will need to help it along. But if you feel a trickle or a gush of liquid, it is probably amniotic fluid. Remember, it could just be a trickle. Be sure to check and see what color it is and if it has an odor. A dark or greenish color or bad odor is a sign that the baby is in distress (meconium could be present and it is very dangerous for baby to inhale it). If you're not sure if what you're seeing is amniotic fluid or just vaginal discharge, go see your doctor or midwife. They can easily test the fluid to be sure. You want to speak to them even if you're not having contractions, because once your water breaks they will want you to deliver before too long, to reduce the risk of infection to the baby and yourself. It's important if your water breaks to check in with your doctor right away.
- Contractions get serious. When the contractions are regular, last longer, and are about 10 minutes apart, you're probably in active labor. At this point, women start to talk less and focus on what's happening in their body more. The pain will increase. If you can't talk through a contraction, that usually means you're in active labor. Time to head to where you're giving birth.
As you navigate these last few weeks and days of your pregnancy, your body isn't the only thing preparing for birth. Your intuition is tuning up as well. Pay attention to how you're feeling, and if you need to talk to your doctor or midwife about something, don't be shy. Even if it's a false alarm, you're doing what you're supposed to by paying attention. This is your body and your baby. While there are patterns of labor, you are the only person who will give birth exactly like you. Trust your body and speak up if you're worried. Best wishes! What an adventure you're beginning!
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