12 Early Signs of Labor That Mean It’s Almost Go Time
Did you know that only 5% of pregnant women give birth on their due dates? Unless you’re having a scheduled c-section, your baby’s exact birthday will be a surprise…most likely occurring between 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after your “official” due date. Though the calendar can’t give you a precise prediction, your body has many ways of dropping hints in the form of early signs of labor that let you know that the baby is on the way. Here are 12 early labor signs that the big day is coming.
Early signs of labor that mean your body is getting ready:
The baby drops
Anywhere from a few weeks to a few hours before active labor begins, the baby’s head will drop into the pelvis in preparation for birth. This is called lightening. Many women first notice the drop while glancing in the mirror! Bonus: That shortness of breath you’ve been suffering could improve big-time as the baby shifts down, away from your diaphragm. However, you may also experience new pelvic heaviness/discomfort and increased peeing.
You feel the urge to nest
In the days leading up to the birth, you might get a sudden burst of energy coupled with the desire to clean, organize, or prepare for the baby. It’s called nesting, and it’s one of the more welcome early warning signs that labor is coming. It’s lovely to get all those little onesies folded and bottles sterilized before the big day, just don’t overdo the physical labor. (That’s what friends and family are for!)
No more weight gain
If you’ve been steadily packing on pounds during the third trimester, you may notice the number on the scale stops ticking up toward the end. Some women actually lose 1 to 3 pounds due to water breaking and increased urination prior to labor.
Your cervix dilates
The cervix is the thick, thumb-long connection that is the very end of your uterus. It extends a couple of inches, way up high at the innermost part of your vagina. During pregnancy, it should remain long and closed (premature opening of the cervix is a serious concern called an incompetent cervix). However, as labor nears, the cervix becomes shorter and thinner (effaced) and will begin to dilate (open). You won’t necessarily feel these early changes. In fact, the first time many women know it’s happening is when their doctor does an exam and announces “We’re getting closer. You’re already 1-centimeter dilated!” The tricky part is that “closer” may mean hours…or a couple of weeks! When labor does come, the cervix will eventually dilate a full 10-centimeters (4 inches).
Don’t be surprised if one day you’re full of pep and the next…you’re totally spent. The end of the third trimester can repeat this part of the first trimester…like you really need a nap! Although sleeping can be challenging when you’re 9 months pregnant, try to get rest and save your energy. Being rested will come in very handy—after all, they call it labor for a reason.
Worsening back pain
A dull ache in your back may come and go. Warm showers, going for a walk, or asking your partner to massage your lower back can help. But, if it gets increasingly worse, call your doctor or midwife because that may be an early sign of labor.
A day or two before labor begins, hormones called prostaglandins go to work to help ripen your cervix (soften it so it can start to open). The downside of that is these same hormones may cause diarrhea (pregnancy sure is glamorous, isn’t it?). The silver lining: Emptying your bowels allows your uterus to contract more efficiently during labor. Just keep swigging water, and you’ll be fine!
Loose joints and increased clumsiness
Could being a klutz be a sign of labor? As labor begins, there’s also an increase in the hormone relaxin, which helps widen your pelvis for birth. Relaxin affects all your joints, and that loose feeling can cause you to be clumsier than usual, so watch your step!
Increased vaginal discharge
Your vagina may release more mucus as your body practices lubricating your birth canal, making it easier for baby to slide out when the time comes! The discharge could also be pieces of mucus breaking off from your mucus plug (more on that in a second!).
During pregnancy, your cervix is sealed shut with a plug of sticky mucus. When the cervix starts dilating, this plug starts to disintegrate and can release a thick, blood-tinged discharge a few days before labor begins. Despite its name, the bloody show should not present as bright red blood—if you see that, immediately call your provider.
Signs of Labor that Mean Labor Is Starting:
Until now, you have likely been experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, which help the body prepare for labor but don’t actually dilate your cervix. Unlike true labor, Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and unpredictable. They may be uncomfortable but are not usually painful, they’re felt only in the abdomen, and you can ease them by walking or changing position. When real contractions start, they will be stronger, more frequent and will eventually come at regular intervals. Sometimes these first real labor contractions will feel like strong menstrual cramps, stomach upset, or bad back pain. And there’s nothing you can do to stop them.
Your water breaks
When your baby is close to being born, the membranes of the amniotic sac will break releasing amniotic fluid. As the fluid passes through the cervix and out your vagina, there may be noticeable wetness, though it could be anywhere from a trickle to a gush. Most women will not experience their water breaking until after labor has begun, but for about 15%, water breaking is the trigger that brings on labor—usually within 24 hours. (Always tell your provider if you think you’re leaking fluid. The opening that lets the fluid out can also let infection up into the uterus and that could have a serious effect on your baby.)
Which signs of labor mean it’s time to go to the hospital?
As mentioned above, there are many signs of labor that kick in well before labor begins. Generally, contractions of increasing frequency and intensity are a sign labor is starting. Start timing your contractions—how long they last, and how far apart they are. Your practitioner will want to know in order to advise you on when to head to the hospital. However, be prepared to head to the hospital immediately if you have significant bleeding or if your water breaks...and of course, don’t hesitate to give your doctor a ring if anything seems unusual or you’re unsure what to do.
How long does early labor last?
You may see signs of labor (like the loss of your mucus plug) as far in advance as three days before labor really kicks into gear. Then, the first phase of the first stage of labor (known as the latent stage, which is before your cervix fully dilates), lasts about to 8 hours (it tends to be quicker if you’ve already had a baby before. Early labor will often be the longest part of the birthing process. This can last up to 3 days!
Can you be in labor and not know it?
Since some of the early labor signs (like back pain) are indistinguishable from the other weird sensations of pregnancy, it’s possible your body will start labor without you knowing it. However, once you notice that your contractions are getting stronger, longer, and closer together, it’s time to spring into action. Likewise, your water breaking will be an undeniable sign that it’s go-time!
Early Signs of Labor: Final Thoughts
Once you reach the final weeks of your pregnancy, you’re eager to meet your little one and every new sensation may seem like a sign of labor! Though some of these signs of labor might mean you still have days—or weeks!—to go, the big day will arrive soon enough. In the meantime, you can brush up on all things babies, like this life-changing method for soothing babies.
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.