11 Early Signs & Symptoms of Labor
In the previous article, we discussed the stages of labor. Although no one can predict when labor will begin, some signs can tell you that delivery is nearing.
When Does Labor Start?
For most women, labor usually starts sometime between the 37th and 42nd weeks of pregnancy. Labor that occurs before week 37 is called preterm or premature; Full-term pregnancy is between the 39th and 40th weeks; Labor after the 42nd week is considered late-term.
According to an NCBI study, about 60% of women deliver babies on or before their given due date.
Also Read: Hospital Bag Checklist for Mom and Baby
The Most Common Signs and Symptoms of Labor
Labor is unpredictable, and no one knows when it will start. Thankfully, your body will give you some signals through which you can identify labor is imminent. For instance, contractions at regular intervals and water breaking are the surefire signs of labor!
Here are a few signs and symptoms that indicate your body is gearing up for childbirth:
#1. Baby Drops: Particularly if you're a first-time pregnant woman, your baby's head will settle deeper into the pelvis to get into a position to exit. For most women, this usually occurs around 2-4 weeks before labor, while many women don't notice this event at all.
It is 'lightening' because you find breathing much more comfortable than before. You can even eat a full meal at this moment. On the flip side, since your baby's skull is pushing down on your bladder, you may feel like urinating frequently.
Even many women complain about pelvic and rectal pain at this stage, which is entirely normal. Experienced moms don't often experience lightening until they're in active labor.
#2. Cervix Dilation: The cervix is the lower end of the uterus through which the baby is born. As the due date approaches, it also undergoes some changes to get ready for birth. It will begin to dilate (open) and efface (thin out) a few weeks or days before labor.
While you probably won't be able to notice this change, your healthcare professional may detect and track dilation and effacement via an internal exam. Don't be discouraged if your cervical dilation is too slow or not started yet. After all, every woman progresses differently!
#3. Increased Cramping and Lower Back Pain: You may experience a low, dull back pain accompanied by period-like cramps in the early stages of labor. The pain might worsen and radiate towards the groin region as the delivery gets closer.
Also Read: Why Do You Need A Maternity Hospital Gown?
It is because your muscles and joints are stretching to prepare your body for childbirth. It's also possible that your baby's head is hitting your spine and causing acute back pain. The pain usually doesn't go away even after the woman changes position or moves around.
While there is no way to alleviate these pains, you can consult your doctor to alleviate discomfort.
#4. Loosening of Joints: The last trimester of your pregnancy encourages your body to release more of the Relaxin, a protein hormone responsible for loosening joints and ligaments, particularly in the pelvic area, in preparation for childbirth.
The same hormone is also the main reason behind the occasional clumsiness you feel during the second and last trimester. Loosening joints is nature's way of opening up the pelvis to make way for your baby to pass through the birth canal easily.
#5. Diarrhea: An annoying but completely normal sign of labor, diarrhea, is an unexpected side effect of Relaxin. Just as it relaxes the muscles in your uterus, it loosens the rectum muscles. Consequently, you're likely to experience random and frequent loose, watery bowel movements in the days preceding labor.
Diarrhea is a generic symptom of labor, and you can experience it anytime during pregnancy. Don't panic because your body is emptying the bowels to contract the uterus efficiently. At this stage, your best bet is to stay as hydrated as possible and avoid eating foods rich in fat and fiber.
#6. Weight Gain Stops: As you approach labor, you might notice that you're not gaining weight anymore. Even in some cases, expectant mothers lose a few kilos right before birth. You don't have to worry about it as your baby is still growing and gaining weight.
It's generally happening because you're losing amniotic fluid to help your little one gain more weight faster. Additionally, you're also experiencing more frequent bathroom breaks and increased activity levels because you find it challenging to sit still for long during this time.
#7. Fatigue or Nesting Instinct: A sudden change in your energy levels during the final weeks of pregnancy indicates you're about to combat labor. While some moms-to-be feel unusually tired, others experience a compelling urge and a burst of energy to organize, clean, and get the house ready for the baby's arrival. This intense urge is known as the nesting instinct.
According to a study by Canadian researchers, nesting behaviors peak in the third trimester.
If you're feeling energetic, don't overexert yourself. Instead, listen to your body, rest, and save your energy for the big event ahead. Particularly if you're feeling tired and sleepy, get adequate sleep, and take naps whenever you can.
#8. Loss of the Mucus Plug: The mucus plug is a glob of thick mucus that seals off the cervical opening during pregnancy to protect the uterus from bacteria. However, as you progress towards labor and when your cervix begins to open wider, this mucus plug loosens and drops out.
Texture-wise, the mucous plug looks similar to the mucus secreted in the nose, except it contains traces of blood and looks slightly pinkish. In a few days or hours before labor, you might notice an increase in vaginal discharge that is thicker. It is called the bloody show, which indicates labor is imminent.
However, if there are no frequent contractions or your cervix hasn't yet dilated at least 3 to 4 centimeters, labor is still several days away.
#9. Frequent Contractions: Contractions are a sensation of your uterus tightening and relaxing at regular or irregular moments to prepare for pushing the baby out. Although they are the most common early sign of active labor, you may also experience false (Braxton Hicks) contractions for 3-4 weeks and even months before delivery. However, when you go into active labor, the Braxton Hicks contractions subside, and real contractions begin.
Unlike false or practice contractions that are mild, irregular, and go away when you change positions or start moving around, real contractions are regular, stronger, longer, and more frequent. No matter what you do or try, they don't go away and become more painful as time goes by. You usually can't talk or walk around during real labor contractions.
To differentiate between real and false labor contractions, you can follow the below table provided by March of Dimes.
#10. Water Breaking: The baby inside your womb is enclosed in the amniotic fluid-filled sac, also known as the 'bag of waters.' At the beginning of or during active labor, the sac ruptures and the fluid gushes out from the vagina. It is known as water breaking. However, contrary to popular belief, only between 8-15% of women experience breaking their water bags.
That means labor can also begin without any water breaking. Even in some rare cases, babies are born with the amniotic fluid membrane intact, called an "en-caul birth" or veiled birth. Nonetheless, water breaking is considered the final and most visible sign of labor because 80% of women go into labor 12-24 hours of their water breaking.
#11. Intense Involuntary Shivering: Even if it's a sultry, hot summer day and you're experiencing shivering, it may indicate labor. It can happen anytime in early or active labor and usually lasts a few minutes. The change in body temperature caused by labor hormones leads to shiver ing, or in other words, it is your body's way of relieving muscle tension.
The best thing you can do to tackle this is holding your breath to the count of five several times consecutively. Alternatively, you can take a deep breath several times, count backward from 20 to 0, or have a warm shower or massage.
When to Call the Doctor/Go to Hospital?
Now that you're familiar with typical signs and symptoms of labor, you may be wondering when to get in touch with your doctor and visit the hospital. Well, you should always call if:
- Your water breaks
- You experience heavy vaginal bleeding or bright red discharge
- You notice reduced or low fetal activity
- You experience blurred or double vision
- You have unbearable pain or high fever
- You experience severe headaches, dizziness, or sudden swelling
- Your blood pressure is higher than usual
- Your contractions are about three minutes apart and last about a minute for an hour
- You suspect you are in real labor
Your health care professional will guide you about when you should admit to the hospital!