Your body may begin to prepare for labor as early as one month before you actually give birth. It is likely that you won’t have any clue that this is happening. Many of the changes are either too subtle to notice or cannot be identified without a vaginal exam. You may experience these things days or weeks before labor begins, but think little of them. Keep an eye out during the last few weeks of pregnancy for these signs that labor may be approaching.
Braxton Hicks contractions are usually painless. You’ll experience a tightening in your stomach, as your uterus contracts. You may find it uncomfortable. These contractions may subside when you change position or have a glass of water. They slowly help prepare the cervix for birth. As you near the big day, you may notice these more often. They often increase in strength and frequency as the weeks pass. They do not develop a pattern, increase in strength throughout the course of a day, or persist for very long.
Before you can give birth, your cervix must widen to let the baby pass through. This process is called dilation and often begins days or weeks before birth. Many women walk around 4 cm dilated for days or weeks before delivering! I personally was dilated 2 centimeters for two weeks and 3 centimeters for another two weeks before I went into labor.
Effacement, or ripening, is when the cervix begins to soften and thin. This is usually measured in a percentage by your care provider. Like dilation, you won’t even feel this happen either. However, if your care provider mentions it to you, it is a sign that birth will occur soon–usually in a few weeks. I began effacing at the same time I began dilating and was walking around partially effaced and dilated for weeks.
First-time mothers may experience lightening a few days or weeks before labor starts. In second and subsequent pregnancies, it usually happens within a few hours of labor beginning. When this happens you will notice that you can breathe better, are carrying lower, and feel more pressure on your pelvis and bladder. Some refer to this as the baby “dropping.”
For a few days or weeks before birth, you may notice an increase in vaginal discharge. Usually it will change from cloudy and white to clear and watery. You may feel like Niagara Falls has relocated into your panties! As birth nears, this discharge may be tinged with blood or contain mucous. (If you notice an odor or color such as yellow, it can be a sign of infection.) I experienced this for a few weeks before delivering.
Diarrhea and nausea may occur off and on for a few weeks before labor, but usually they occur a few days or hours before it. This is your body cleaning out your system to make more room for the baby to move downward. Your cervix and uterus are softening, and this causes your bowels to soften as well. I personally experienced this for a few days prior to birth.
Bloody show usually occurs within a week of labor. This is when the mucous plug blocking your cervix is lost, as your cervix opens. You may lose it a little at a time or all at once. It will be thick and stringy, like snot, and it may be tinged with blood. I personally
When your water breaks, usually labor will start within 24 hours, though sometimes it may not occur for days or weeks. The placenta continues manufacturing amniotic fluid, and the sac can actually repair itself. For most women, though, rupture of membranes means labor is imminent.
Nesting also occurs a few days or weeks before birth. Many women describe a sudden burst of energy and urge to be active. This may be energy for you to use in labor, and it may be to help bring labor on–as activity causes contractions to strengthen. Some feel this may date back to a primal instinct from the time when we need to prepare our surroundings for a safer birth. You will probably have a sudden desire to clean and make sure everything is ready for baby. Or, you may just feel like walking around and being active!
In the days and weeks prior to labor, your baby’s activity may decrease. This occurs for two reasons. For one, the baby is probably reserving his energy, oxygen, and nutrient supply for use during labor and birth. Secondly, there just isn’t enough room in there for him to move around as much. The womb becomes very cramped as your baby nears newborn size. This is especially true if you are carrying multiples.
One or two of these things happening may indicate that labor is going to come in a few weeks. When these things all begin occurring together, it is usually a sign that birth will occur in a few days. Based on how much of this you’re experiencing, that’s how you can determine how soon birth will take place. There is, however, no guarantee. Even the surer signs such as loss of mucous plug and rupture of membranes are not 100% certain. Nevertheless, these are some things you can look out for to fuel your hope and excitement and to be ready when labor does come!