Here are the most common signs of labor and ways you can try to promote labor.
The signs of labor can differ from one woman to another, and even for the same woman they may change from one pregnancy to the next. Although there’s no way to predict how a woman’s labor will progress or how long it will last, there are a few common signs of labor. What initiates labor, however, is less clear.
“We don’t really know what mechanisms bring on labor,” said Leslie Ludka, a certified nurse midwife and the director of midwifery at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass. “Science hasn’t figured this out yet.”
Labor is likely initiated when certain hormones are produced by the fetus, experts suspect. Below is more information on the physical signs of labor.
One sign that labor may be approaching in a matter of days is when some women experience a “nesting” instinct. Although tired at this late stage of pregnancy, some women may feel a sudden burst of energy, and the desire to cook, clean and get the house organized before the baby arrives.
A 2013 study by Canadian researchers in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior found that nesting behaviors peak during a woman’s third trimester of pregnancy. Similar to its role in the animal kingdom of preparing a safe environment for the new arrival, nesting in women may also serve a protective function, the authors wrote.
The body can give off other clues that a woman might be going into labor. Below are six common signs of labor.
Another sign of labor is known as “lightening.” This occurs anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks before labor begins in first-time pregnancies, a woman may look and feel as though the baby has dropped into a lower position in her pelvis. This means the baby is getting into a head-down position in preparation for birth. (In women who have previously given birth, lightening may not occur until right before labor begins.)
When the baby settles into a lower position, this eases pressure on a woman’s diaphragm, making it easier for her to breathe. But it also puts more pressure on her pelvis and bladder, resulting in frequent bathroom visits. In addition, a woman’s belly may appear lower and more protruding, and she may walk with a waddle.
Contractions may also be a sign of labor. A woman’s uterus contracts during her entire pregnancy, Ludka said. “It’s a muscle, and it has to practice for this Olympic event that is going to happen,” she explained.
Near the end of pregnancy, uterine contractions start to move the baby down into a lower position in the birth canal, and ultimately having contractions will help to push the baby out into the world.
True labor involves regular, rhythmic, intense contractions that become closer than five minutes apart for more than an hour or two, Ludka said. The contractions usually start in a woman’s back and then come around to the front, she said.
“The abdomen gets hard, hard, hard like a basketball and then it relaxes,” Ludka explained. “Real contractions feel like that.”
Distinguishing between false contractions and real ones can be tricky. If a pregnant woman is having more than six contractions every hour, and they become stronger and rhythmic (meaning they occur at regular intervals), then pay attention, because the baby is on its way, Ludka said. True labor contractions don’t go away even if a woman changes position, such as moving around or laying down.
Ludka said that people don’t often know how to time contractions correctly. It’s done by timing from the beginning of one contraction to the start of the next one, including the rest time in between them.
False labor contractions, called Braxton Hicks contractions, often occur at irregular time intervals, they do not get closer together over time, and they’ll eventually subside, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Unlike true labor, false contractions are usually felt in the front of the body in the lower abdomen, are typically weak, and may stop when a woman walks, rests or changes her position.
The fetus has been growing and developing in a woman’s uterus surrounded by amniotic fluid. When this protective sac of fluid ruptures (a process also called “rupture of membranes”), some women experience a gush of liquid, while for others it’s a slow trickle.
A pregnant woman’s water can break days before labor starts, during labor or not at all (in which case an obstetrician or midwife will break it during the delivery), Ludka said. She advised mothers-to-be to call their obstetrician or midwife when their water breaks and describe the fluid’s color and odor. This can help a health professional determine whether an expectant woman is leaking urine, which is a common symptom during pregnancy, or amniotic fluid.
Once a woman’s water breaks, the baby is no longer surrounded by a protective sac and could be at risk of developing an infection. This is why doctors and midwives will want to deliver the baby within a day or two of the water breaking.