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Every labor story is different. What one woman experiences can vary quite a bit from another woman, but there are definitely signs that can let you know if you are in the early stages of labor. Your body will begin to change weeks before the baby is due to arrive. A few subtle changes will begin to occur, signifying to you to prepare for the arrival of the baby.
If you are far along in your pregnancy, you may have noticed difficulty breathing. This is because the baby's pressure on your diaphragm causes you to be out of breath. But if you can suddenly breathe again, this means the baby has settled deeper into your pelvis and is preparing to make its arrival soon. Though the lowering of the baby makes it easier for you to breathe, you may notice increased pressure on your bladder, causing more trips to the bathroom. It may even change your pregnancy appearance.
Urge to nest
Some women feel an urge to "nest" in the days before they go into labor. Pregnancy is generally exhausting, but the nesting urge brings a new wave of energy. You may suddenly feel motivated to rearrange furniture, go shopping, make lists, and other productive tasks. But remember that you're going to have a baby soon, so conserve your energy and don't overdo it.
Your body will begin to show other physical changes in the last month of pregnancy. The cervix will begin to stretch and thin, showing that the lower portion of the uterus is getting prepared for the delivery process. A thin cervix allows for the cervix to dilate more efficiently and easily, so this effacement stage is a sure sign of upcoming delivery. Your doctor can check for this up to two months before the delivery date, and the effacement statistics are generally given in percentages. For a vaginal delivery to begin, a woman's cervix must be 100 percent effaced.
A bloody show, or the expulsion of the mucus plug, can show up days, hours, or even minutes before a woman goes into labor. However, this usually happens between two and six weeks before giving birth. This mucus plug is created by your body to protect the cervical opening from bacteria entering the uterus, keeping the baby safe. As the effacement process begins, the plug is expelled as a clear, pink, or bloody tinged mucus or discharge. However, heavy bloody discharge can be a sign of a problem — the Mayo Clinic recommends contacting your healthcare provider if this occurs.
'My water broke!'
Though the movies often show a dramatic surge of fluid as a woman's water breaks and goes into labor, this actually only happens to about one in 10 women. This usually happens at home, often in bed. The amniotic fluid should not be confused with leaked urine, which is also a common symptom of pregnancy. The fluid is clear and odorless — if you determine the fluid to be amniotic fluid, then you should contact your healthcare provider. The quality of the fluid is also important – if the discharge is green or foul smelling, this can be a sign of infection. 90 percent of women begin labor within 24 hours after their water breaks.
The cervix will begin to dilate as it opens in preparation for the labor process. Dilation is measured in centimeters, and a fully dilated cervix is 10 cm (about 4 inches). Your healthcare provider will be able to tell you how dilated your cervix is, and when it's time to prepare for childbirth. It is common for the cervix to begin dilation two weeks before active labor begins, often at one to two centimeters. The beginning of the dilation process usually indicates that the baby will arrive in a few weeks.
The most common indication of labor is regular uterine contractions. As they begin, record the exact time contractions begin and how long they last. They often feel like a lower backache that comes and goes, similar to menstrual cramps. In the early part of the labor process, contractions can be as far apart as 20 to 30 minutes. As the process continues, contractions generally occur at shorter and shorter intervals. At five minutes apart, the American Pregnancy Association recommends calling your healthcare provider.
Labor contractions should not be confused with Braxton Hicks contractions. These can begin as early as the second trimester, and are often referred to as "practice contractions." The muscles of the uterus tighten for about a minute and allow women to practice breathing exercises. Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular, infrequent, and unpredictable. They don't generally increase in intensity or frequency.
Conversely, labor contractions are regular and predictable. They become progressively closer, longer, and stronger, and are on more of a schedule. They are often accompanied by a bloody show, and the cervical changes will be marked by your healthcare provider. Labor contractions are the surest sign of labor, but there is always the possibility of a false alarm.