If you've never given birth before, you may assume that you'll just "know" when the time has arrived to have your baby. In reality, onset of true labor isn't always easy to identify, and events leading up it can drag on for days. Remember, too, that your due date is simply a point of reference -- it's common for labor to start any time between two weeks before and two weeks after this date.
So how will you know that labor is starting? First, you need to understand the birth process. In a nutshell, here's what happens during labor: The uterus repeatedly contracts (tightens and relaxes), causing the cervix to thin (efface) and open up (dilate) so you can push your baby into the world.
Most expectant mothers feel mild contractions before they're actually in labor. These are called Braxton Hicks contractions. It can be hard to distinguish Braxton Hicks contractions from the real deal, especially if you're near your due date. If contractions aren't causing your cervix to dilate, though, it's known as "false" labor. While true labor contractions get longer, stronger, and closer together as time goes on, false labor contractions tend to be:
Alert your caregiver if you feel increasing pelvic pressure, have vaginal bleeding or heavy discharge, or notice a marked decrease in your baby's activity. She can talk you through these changes and decide if you need to come in for an exam.
And, of course, let your health care provider know when regular contractions begin. These may feel like your uterus is "knotting up" and be relatively painless at first, but gradually build in intensity, starting the top of your uterus radiating through your belly and lower back. Your caregiver will want to know what other symptoms you're feeling, how far apart your contractions are, and whether you can talk during them.
Once labor has started in earnest, when should you go to the hospital? Every situation is different, so talk to your caregiver well ahead of delivery day about the best plan for you. In general, though, expectant mothers should head to the hospital when their contractions are too painful to talk through, last 60 seconds or more, and have been coming three to five minutes apart for at least an hour. If you’re not sure, call your health care provider and talk with them about when to come in.
Sometimes contractions cause the cervix to efface and dilate before 37 weeks of pregnancy. This is called preterm labor. A uterine or vaginal infection or a host of other health problems can bring on preterm labor. For unknown reasons, some women are more prone to it than others.
The symptoms of preterm labor are similar to the symptoms of labor that begins at term. If you notice any of the pre-labor signs listed above or feel strong, regular contractions before 37 weeks, call your caregiver right away. After examining you to see if your cervix is effacing or dilating, she may recommend that you avoid intercourse, exertion, and stress and get as much rest as possible to stave off further contractions. See preterm labor for more information.
Review Date: 12/9/2012
Reviewed By: Irina Burd, MD, PhD, Maternal Fetal Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.