A big question many pregnant women have is “How will I know when I’m in labour?” And even if you have been through it before it can be rather easy to miss some of the signs that baby is in the last stages of getting your body ready to meet you.
Add that to a birthing media culture that loves to show us the drama of water breaking (usually somewhere public and very visible and messy), and jumping from no signs straight to excruciatingly painful contractions and many of us are watching for signs that just may not happen for us in any of our births.
If you take My First Birth Story I can say that I was in denial about being in labour for hours, yes HOURS. Mostly because the signs I was expecting (pain and water breaking) just didn’t happen. My water broke late in the delivery process effectively right before baby crowned, and as for the expected pain…I didn’t have any.
Now that I’m waiting to meet our second little one I’m wondering how the experience will differ, and I’m sure if you are in the last days or weeks of pregnancy you are too! So let’s explore what signs we can watch for to help us understand how close we are to meeting our babies together.
Pre-Labour (A month to 24 hours before)
Just when we start to think that we are “totally done with being pregnant”, or like there is “no way, we could ever get off the couch with out a crane to lift us” we could be experiencing some of the following.
An increase in Vaginal Discharge
It could be brown or pinkish in color and you may notice it looks a bit like the mucus that comes out of your nose…
while this can be you mucous plug you may have already lost (and re-grown it) earlier in pregnancy as well it’s basically a sign that the plug is letting go in preparation for baby’s arrival.
The Baby “Engages” or “Drops”
“Engagement” is the feeling that the baby is getting lower in your pelvis, also commonly referred to as “dropping”.
You could feel like you can breathe easier, and the pressure lower in your body will increase. Baby is effectively moving closer to the exit! (Insert Happy Dance here 😉 )
Though it is worth it to note that if this is your first baby chances are this will happen well before the last couple of days, mine dropped about 2 weeks before he decided it was time to meet us but some women report up to 4 weeks before hand.
The “Pregnancy Waddle” is more pronounced
The “Pregnancy Waddle” will get worse… yup, baby dropping down or “engaging” makes it harder to walk and restricts some of the movement in your lower body so be prepared to waddle more. And it might just happen overnight or suddenly during the day.
Braxton Hicks are more Frequent
Braxton Hicks or practice contractions that feel like hardening or tightening of the uterus or even possibly the sensation of having period cramps.
Period cramps and their intensity will vary for each woman, but if you feel something like that (or similar but different intensity) randomly throughout the day that is one sign your body thinks the baby is about done.
Dull pain low in your back that comes and goes. If you are feeling this it could be a version of Braxton Hicks, or your body complaining about the weight we gain in pregnancy. But it will come and go without any real rhythm or consistency.
Weight Loss/Stop in Weight Gain
Slight weight loss or a stop in weight gain. Now I’m not a huge fan of using your weight as something to gauge your health or progression of your pregnancy by.
However, since most Doctors love to track this they may comment on it that you’ve lost a pound or two. This usually is due to the reduction of the amnionic fluid and could be related to things like nausea, diarrhea, or food aversions cropping up etc.
Diarrhea/Frequent Bathroom Trips
Loose and frequent poops, or diarrhea. This is one of the ways your body makes room for your uterus to do the work of delivering your baby.
Basically it’s trying to get as much room to flex it’s muscles as possible and that means any crap in your system that doesn’t need to be there it’s going to push out either through your bottom or up through your top. Which leads me to….
Indigestion & Vomiting
Indigestion and vomiting… yeah, not a fun sign to deal with but it could be a “baby soon” indicator. If you have been dealing with nausea all the way through pregnancy this one may not be as noticeable but could get worse.
Indigestion is another one of those things that can be uncomfortable, find foods that work for you and will stay down because you are going to need the energy to push kiddo out!
The sensation of building pressure or cramping in your pelvis or bum. This can be from baby moving into position and also from the muscles practicing for baby’s arrival.
During pregnancy our body preps us for delivery in a number of ways. And one of the cool things it does is produce a hormone called Relaxin which is responsible for loosening your joints by (you guessed it) relaxing your ligaments.
Ligaments are part of what holds your joints together in the first place. And you have a lot of joints that need to relax during the delivery process in order for baby to come out.
The result is that you could feel ALL your joints relax, it’s part of nature’s way of opening up your pelvis to help little one make their way into the world.
Nesting or Restlessness … or Exhaustion
A feeling of restlessness/increased energy, or a serious drop in energy or feeling of exhaustion.
If you are feeling a sudden intense need to nest (burst of energy) it’s likely that you don’t want to leave things undone at home but you need to be careful how much you do.
It’s going to make labour more exhausting if you start tiered and sore, so go a head and nest (by all means) but make sure you take breaks and rest too…
If you are on the other end of it and suddenly tiered go sleep or rest as best you can. The more energy you can store up for labour the better.
Changes in your Cervix
A softening, thinning or dilation of the cervix… this one requires an internal exam to check. And may start well before the 24 – 48 hours.
If you are comfortable with doing it yourself you can, but often this is left to a doctor. I personally have never checked this one but think it would be kinda cool to know.
The mood swings or irritability gets stronger/worse…I think this is the big one I’m dealing with right now myself.
As much as I love the people around me I really don’t want anyone near or touching me…which is hard to explain to a 3 year old (Lord help me).
I love a good snuggle and the smell from him calms me, but the second he moves I’m about ready to snap. It’s not his fault, but I can sure feel the mood swing!
It’s important to note that not every woman will experience the same signs or even the signs in the same order. Some of us won’t even notice when these signs are occurring either. Even when they are obvious to someone else.
You’re Going into Labour
Ok, not everyone is going to have this happen as a “first sign” type thing (remember with my first my water didn’t break until about an hour before kiddo arrived). But if you do experience this, chances are labour is just around the corner.
Now it’s not likely to be some big forceful gushing, while that can happen most of the time it feels more like a small leak or like you peed yourself. This is due to baby’s head being positioned in a way that often prevents too much fluid from leaking out.
Also if you are having nightmares (like I did) about it being sudden and in public it’s not really that common (unless you are an actor in a movie). I think I read a study somewhere that it only happens in less than 10% of all spontaneous births.
Once the sac has ruptured however about 80% of women report going into spontaneous labour within the next 12 hours. And for those who don’t the chances of being induced increase because of the risk of infection after the amniotic sac ruptures (both for you and baby). So if this does happen CALL YOUR CARE PROVIDER to see what they recomend.
You Get a Bloody Show…
Ok, remember how we talked about the vaginal discharge changing a couple days before baby’s arrival? Yeah, this is the next step in that. Your mucous plug is what keeps your cervix closed and is your body’s way of protecting baby from things like infection. But the closer you get to labour the cervix starts to do things to prepare for baby to come through wich includes dialation, thinning and a general softening (your body is AMAZING in what it knows needs to be done Mamma). In the process of all the changes to your cervix this plug will “let go” and needs to come out some how.
This can be something like a teaspoonful of blood or it might look like a “blob” of mucous (kinda like the stuff you get from your nose but slightly thicker), or it could just be a runny smear in your underwear…
This mucous discharge may look brown (like old dried blood from your period) or pink which is the fresh blood caused by tiny blood vessels breaking while your cervix continues to thin and open. This can happen weeks or hours before active labour starts but is a pretty good indication something is up.
Strong, Regular Contractions
Lets get one BIG misconception about labour out of the way RIGHT NOW! You know in the movies where someone is out for a romantic dinner with their partner and all of a sudden starts screaming in pain at the top of their lungs… yeah, that’s rare! I’m sure there is someone out there who has had to deal with that but usually that level of intensity comes a LOT later and you have a build up to it (unless you are induced)
When active labour starts the contractions are usually mild, irregular and feel a bit like cramps (or so I’m told). Over time they will become more consistent and intense and they build up a rhythm.
Usually, you won’t be able to feel the baby move during this time, that’s ok, they are doing their part to help your body by moving into position using those cramps/contractions.
Some women report the contractions as a band or wave that starts in their back and wraps around the front, others feel it all in their belly’s and still others only feel them in their legs. The thing to watch for is a tightening or cramping feeling. I personally remember feeling a tighteness in my back once I acknowledged that I was in labour, but I don’t remember anything in the front. And these days’ it’s different I’m getting visible tightening in my front but only a slight ache in my low back.
Your Back Really Hurts
Ok, as you progressed in pregnancy your back likely was bugging you to some extent. The weight gain, the change in your centre of gravity, and other factors may well have put additional strain on it so you could be having the constant ache.
In the last trimester many women also find things like a pregnancy belt to be very helpful in reducing this strain.
But when the back ache goes from annoying to painful chances are you are dealing with back labour. This is experienced by nearly one-third of women and can be caused by baby descending with the back of it’s head against Mamma’s spine instead of baby’s face. Though this is not always the case.
Is it False Labour?
I’ll admit that I assumed I was in “False Labour” with our first, I figured that it was more likely to be Braxton Hicks then actual contractions because I was expecting things to feel different.
And Braxton Hicks do feel different than active contractions.
Braxton Hicks are:
- irregular and subside after a time
- don’t increase in strength or frequency
- go away if you move around
- usually only in your front not your back
They are basically your body’s way of practicing for the real thing. Active Contractions are something you can time, when they are regular, consistent, and increasing in intensity/frequency you are in active labour.
When to call your Doula?
Doula’s are an AMAZING helper for your entire labour, from the earliest signs to adjusting to baby being home. So my personal opinion is to keep them in the loop all the way from “I might be in labour” to well after “we just had a baby”…
When to call your Midwife/OBGYN?
If you notice anything you are concerned with CALL! There are somethings to watch for like Micomium that you should have help with (we don’t want baby to ingest that). Or if your Doula recomends calling listen to them.
But if all is going well and things are progressing then the big thing to watch is the timing of your contractions. When a Doctor or Midwife tells you “call me at 4-1-1” (or 5-1-1) it’s usually how they want to see the timing on your contractions from start of one to the start of the next.
The First number (4 or 5) is the number of minutes apart, the second number (-1-) is the length of time the contraction lasts (usually a minute) and the last number (-1) is the length of time this occurs for (usually an hour). Check with your care provider on what they want you to watch for and if possible use an app on your phone that lets you just tap the screen when contractions start/stop.
If you have a Doula they can do this timing for you, otherwise, get your partner or someone else who is with you to help cause the contractions can be intense enough that you may not remember.
A Contraction is considered strong if you can’t talk while experiencing one.
Once your contractions (or waves) are regular and strong and coming at the frequency your Midwife/Doctor said to watch for call them. They will likely ask you some questions to determin if you need to go in to the hospital/birth centre. Or if you are planning a home birth if your Midwife needs to come to you.
If this is your second labour you may want to call sooner (like 10 to 15 minutes between contractions) as the second one is generally shorter so you have less time to relocate or get your Midwife to you.
When to head to the Hospital / Birth Centre
Ok, if you have met the criteria above and in the rare event that you can’t get a hold of your Doctor or Midwife (for whatever reason), there may be some reasons to stay at home a bit longer.
Like the distance between you and the hospital/birth centre… if it is relatively close you may not need to rush out the door right then. However, if it’s farther away (like more than 30 minutes) it’s likely best to get moving. Especially if it is your second (or later) birth which tends to be a quicker process.
The other big thing to think about is … have your membranes ruptures (did your water break?) and how long ago that was. Most care providers will tell you to come in if you are more than 12 hours past your water breaking due to the risk of infection though that may vary (so check with yours).
Are you extremely anxious or feeling like you are in more pain then is normal for early labour? Then go in! You and your baby deserve the best care there is, so go in and see what can be done to help you. The more stressed you are the more likely you will create additional tension in your body and that can prolong labour.
Are you pre-term, pregnant with multiples (like twins), or dealing with other high-risk factors? The call your care provider right away if you think you could be in labour. When they got into the business of catching babies they knew they would be getting these kinds of calls.
Any pregnant woman who experiences any of the following should be contacting their Doctor/Midwife with out delay wether you are in active labour or not!
- Water Breaking
- Heavy Vaginal Bleeding
- No Movement from Baby
- Swelling of the face and hands
- Blurred vision
- Severe headaches
- Intense stomach/abdominal pain
Trying to figure out if you are in labour can be a nerve-wracking time. It’s packed with the excitement of meeting your little one, and full of all sorts of experiences that are often unknown and even scary on occasion.
But these signs can all point to the impending joy of holding your sweet little baby in your arms in the near future. And THAT is worth all the waiting!