Is your pregnancy coming to an end? You might be wondering when and how labor will start. Will the heavens open, and after one push (hopefully), your baby arrives?
It’s completely normal, as a first-time mom, to have millions of questions about labor and delivery. As your due date gets closer, you’re probably looking for any hint of the big moment approaching.
But what exactly are the early signs and symptoms of labor? Knowing what to look for could help you prepare for the upcoming arrival of your precious bundle. Here’s what you need to know.
Early Signs of Labor
The nine months of pregnancy can sometimes feel like so much more. The first trimester can often be filled with morning sickness. The second may feel like a breeze — but then the third hits, and some of us go back to square one.
But could some of those discomforts, particularly in the last month, be a sign of something more significant? Your baby and body may be simply preparing for the special day.
Here are nine early signs you may be feeling already:
1. Why Is My Belly Lower?
All women carry their babies differently. Some have a high, protruding belly, while others are not so obvious. If you’re like me — you reach full capacity around six months, then spend the last three hearing “any day now, huh?”
However, as your due date closes in, the baby will, or should, turn “head-down.” This usually happens before 32 weeks Your baby will then begin making a slow descent into the pelvis.
Some women may feel relief as the baby drops — also known as “lightening.” For several months now, the baby might have put pressure on your lungs and stomach, causing mild shortness of breath and heartburn. As your little one lowers, some of that pressure goes away.
The “waddle” is a signature pregnancy walk, one that most women master towards the end. When the baby drops lower into the pelvis, waddling might be impossible to avoid. Comfortable shoes are a definite advantage at this time — ditch the heels for a while.
You may also feel the need to urinate more frequently. You can’t blame your bladder, it’s getting kicked and bumped by a tiny human being. Think about all that extra pressure your bladder is being put under (1).
2. Nesting or Resting
As we close in on the finish line, the pregnancy can take two turns, either fatigue or extra energy. You may be feeling waves of both.
“Nesting” is a real thing, and it can make pregnant women go full power with the cleaning, organizing and overall preparation for the baby. Where did the energy come from? Might be the extra adrenaline the body is producing during the last weeks.
However, resist the urge to give into every single craving to nest. Now is the prime time to rest up for labor (2).
You might be feeling the complete opposite, and totally fatigued. This is also normal; feeling drained and bouts of crying are just two ways fatigue shows up.
Listen to your body and give yourself permission to slow down. Take naps, delight in warm baths or find other avenues for pampering yourself.
Do what you need to do to feel good. Maybe ask a family member, or let daddy take care of the “nesting” to-do list.
3. Weight Gain Has Stopped
When pregnant, we typically gain weight. It’s natural, and something we simply can’t avoid. Some women will gain a lot, others just a little.
But, as you venture toward the end of the final trimester, you may notice a difference. You might stop gaining weight — again, “reaching full capacity,” as I mentioned above.
Some women will even lose a few pounds. You may feel concerned to see the numbers drop, but don’t worry. Just because you’re losing weight, it doesn’t mean the baby is too.
Your peanut will still be gaining as they should. If you’re losing more than a few pounds or feeling concerned, talk to your healthcare provider.
A few things that can contribute to weight loss during those last weeks include:
- The amniotic fluid is slowly decreasing: A slight decrease in amniotic fluid normal toward the end of pregnancy.
- More frequent toilet visits: As baby is constantly pressing on your bladder, you’ll be urinating more often, which may cause weight loss.
- You are in full-on nesting mode: You may be burning a few extra calories while preparing for your baby’s arrival (3).
4. Increased Discomfort
Between running — or waddling — to the bathroom, nesting, and napping, you might also be experiencing general discomfort.
Your belly can feel like it’s going to burst at any given moment and now, your back is feeling the pain as well. You may also be having more “Braxton Hicks.” These are irregular cramps, or contractions, of the uterus, which we’ll delve into later.
As the due date comes into sight, the discomfort can become unbearable at times, and interfere with your much-needed sleep. Here are a few tricks to try:
- Sleep on your left side: This will increase blood flow to your uterus and help nutrients reach your baby with ease.
- Keep knees bent: Position a pillow between your knees to support your hips and spine.
- Support belly/back: Place a maternity pillow under your belly to relieve pressure (4).
Don’t get me started on heartburn, that burning sensation after eating. Why does that always have to get worse when you want to sleep? Relieve the fire with these tips:
- Drink cold milk: Especially before bed.
- Elevate: Elevating your upper body with pillows can help during the night.
5. Changes in the Cervix
During the last month of pregnancy, the cervix will transform. After all, your uterus is preparing to squeeze a full-grown baby out through a little cervix. Two primary changes will happen to it: dilation and effacement.
Dilation means “opening,” and while it can be a slow process, it can also quickly change as the baby drops. For some women, their cervix will slowly dilate over the last few weeks of pregnancy. Other moms may not dilate until they’re in active labor, so don’t worry if it hasn’t happened yet (5).
The doctor or midwife measures dilation in centimeters. Once the cervix is dilating regularly and steadily, that generally means you’re in active labor.
For most full-term babies, the cervix is fully dilated when it reaches 10 centimeters, or just under 4 inches. To give you an idea, that’s about the size of a bagel (6).
Effacement means “thinning.” As the cervix dilates, it will also become soft and thin to make room for the baby. This is measured in percentages (7). The cervix starts out thick, like a steak, and thins out until it is as thin as a sheet of paper.
Your OB may conduct regular cervical examinations during the last weeks. It’s okay to decline the check and wait until you’re closer to labor. Unless you’re regularly contracting or unsure if the baby is head down, cervical examinations do not tell us when you will go into labor.
These checks can be very uncomfortable, but the best thing to do is relax as much possible. Remember that it won’t last long, and it’s yet another sign your baby is finally on the way.
6. Are Those Real Contractions or Braxton Hicks?
Some women will have “false” labor pains, known as Braxton Hicks, during pregnancy.
These labor pains do not feel false! Even if you haven’t experienced Braxton Hicks before the third trimester, you may begin to feel a few in the final weeks before birth.
Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular and don’t mean labor is starting. These pains range from mild to agonizing.
It can be challenging to differentiate between Braxton Hicks and real contractions at times. However, the two differ in several ways. Braxton Hicks contractions:
- Feel like tightening of the abdomen and uterus: Many women say they feel like intense menstrual cramps.
- Are irregular: If your contractions are regular, you may be in the first stages of labor.
- Can be stopped: Try changing your position or activity, to calm things down.
- Won’t get stronger: Real contractions will increase over time, but the intensity of Braxton Hicks will stay the same, with only minor changes (8).
Sorry to break it to you, but as labor is getting closer, you may experience the oh-so-delightful “runs.”
All the muscles in your uterus are relaxing as they prepare for labor. Other muscles, such as your rectum, will do the same. Some women find themselves taking a few more trips to the bathroom to empty your bowels.
If it becomes frequent, you may need to tell your OB provider. Otherwise, just make sure you drink enough water and eat well, to replace any lost fluids.
Here are a few things you can try to avoid diarrhea:
- Reconsider what you’re eating: Foods high in fat, and fried or spicy food can irritate your delicate gut, so try to strike a balance in your diet.
- Check your medications: Some medications can increase the chances of diarrhea. Prenatal vitamins are one of them. If you take your prenatal vitamin with a meal, it may alleviate some of your stomach troubles.
Though diarrhea is typically harmless, there are a few things to look out for:
- Decreased urine production.
- Dry or sticky mouth.
- Dark urine.
- Dizziness and feeling lightheaded.
- A headache.
- Increased thirst.
8. Say Farewell to Your Mucus Plug
The notorious mucus plug. Haven’t we all heard of the little snot cork that falls out as labor starts? Truth is, the mucus plug is what protects the baby from the outside world.
How and when the plug comes out is different for all women. Some may see the whole thing, while others only notice bits and pieces.
If you’re wondering what it looks like, you’re not alone. The mucus plug typically looks similar to egg whites or human snot.
As it falls out, it means your cervix is ripening — dilating and effacing. Some women will lose it early on in the third trimester, some even in the second. However, the mucus plug can grow back.
The mucus plug usually falls out before the water breaks. However, sometimes the two occur within a very short time frame.
If labor is only a few days away, you may notice a few changes in vaginal discharge as well. Think thicker and a larger amount.
If you notice pink or brown streaks of blood in your discharge, it may be what is lovingly referred to as “the bloody show.” This is an indication that labor is right around the corner, and you may want to pack your hospital bag (10).
9. Did I Wet My Pants?
Haven’t we all seen this movie scene? The water breaks and a woman is instantly in active labor. The truth is, that’s far from reality for many.
Water breaking is one of the final signs of the pregnancy coming to an end. For some women, it can occur days before the birth, while others have their water broken for them in active labor. Don’t feel bad if it hasn’t happened yet.
What does the water breaking actually feel like? Here are a few ways women have described it:
- A gush or splash: Described as coming from deep within.
- Trickle: Some feel a little liquid trickle down their legs.
- A pop, followed by relief: Like popping a balloon (11).
Early Labor FAQs
When Can I Expect the Signs to Appear?
The first signs, such as baby dropping and nesting, could start any time during the third trimester. However, it usually starts around a month before labor.
Other signs such as diarrhea, losing the mucus plug, and irregular contractions could happen anywhere between a week and eight hours before.
When Should I Contact My Doctor or Midwife?
If you suspect that your water has broken, you should immediately notify your OB provider.
When you notice that the contractions are becoming stronger and more regular, get out a timer. You could even download an app made explicitly to time contractions, which is incidentally an excellent way to distract yourself. Write down the strength of the contraction and how long it lasts.. Measure the timing of the contractions from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next.
Contractions that last 30 to 70 seconds at regular intervals (five minutes apart or less) could indicate labor. Never hesitate or feel embarrassed to call your doctor (12).
How Long Can Early Labor Last?
Early labor, or the first stage, will usually last up to 20 hours (13). However, it can be much shorter, particularly with second and subsequent births.
Can I Help My Labor Along Naturally?
Labor and delivery can be a long and tiring process. Luckily there are a few things you can do to give it a gentle push.
Take Advantage of Your Partner
I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but sex is a great way to help labor along. Semen contains special fats called prostaglandins which soften the cervix and help you dilate. Also, if you orgasm, it could potentially lead to stronger contractions (14).
If your labor is coming along slowly, it could be a good idea to go for a walk, assuming your water hasn’t broken. Light exercise can help the baby move further down into the pelvis. It can also ease some of that pain as well.
Change Position Frequently
Move around frequently. Keeping upright will encourage the baby to continue to move down in your pelvis. Try other helpful positions like hands and knees, squatting, sitting on the toilet, or doing lunges.
Sit on a Fitness Ball
Bounce or rock your hips while sitting on a birth ball. The ball helps your baby’s head to apply continuous pressure to your cervix.
When the nipples are stimulated, oxytocin is released from the pituitary glands. Oxytocin is highly contraction-inducing. In fact, there’s a synthetic form — Pitocin — which is used to induce labor (15). Run this by your healthcare provider first. If done too early or too frequently, it can cause preterm contractions or distress your baby.
I recommend that moms distract themselves from beginning labor pains. Before labor starts, choose an early labor project. Many moms choose to watch a movie, finish a craft project (i.e. knitting), or bake cookies. Time your contractions occasionally so that you have an idea of how close they are becoming. If you fixate only on the contractions, it can make labor seem longer!
Editor's Note:Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM
The Last Push
The last month of pregnancy can feel like an eternity. You know the feeling, you’re anxious to see your baby, but may be nervous about the birth. With every little cramp, you wonder, “could this be it?”
Stay calm and be patient, though I know it’s easier said than done. Just remember that your body — and baby — need to be fully prepared for this momentous event.