What are some of the telltale signs of labor?
Every woman has a different experience of labor. There are some telltale symptoms and signs of labor though.
In pre-labor or early labor, you may have symptoms such as:
- Lower back or abdominal pain, with persistent cramps
- You will lose your mucus plug
- Painful contractions or tightenings in your abdominal muscles
- Broken waters, it may come in a gush or a trickle. Although it can happen long before full labor starts, you should still call your midwife to let them know.
- An upset stomach
- Disrupted sleep
There can be somewhat of an overlap between pre-labor and labor itself, so it is possible to confuse the symptoms. How you will feel during the stages of pre-labor depends on:
- If you’ve had a baby before
- How high/low your personal pain threshold is
- How prepared you are for what going into labor may feel like
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What should I do in early or pre-labor?
The first stage of labor is when your cervix begins to dilate. It usually dilates to approx 4cm. Keeping calm and relaxed is the best thing to do to help you cope with the tightenings or contractions. Keeping calm will also help your body to release the hormone oxytocin, which is essential for your labor to progress.
Some ways of keeping calm and relaxed could be as simple as asking a friend/relative/your partner to keep you company, watching your favorite film, going for a short walk, taking a bath etc. If you are able to, you should try to get some rest to prepare yourself for the hard work of labor.
You might feel hungry, so if you feel like eating or drinking, do it! Snacking on small amounts of high energy foods is a good way to keep you going. It will help to comfort you and it might even help your labor to progress smoothly. Early labor is also a good time for you to try out different positions and breathing techniques, to see if they can help you deal with your contractions better.
How can I tell when I’ve moved into ‘active labor’?
The ‘active phase’ or first stage of labor is when your cervix dilates from 4cm to roughly 10cm. For many women, the main sign of entering this stage of labor is painful, regular contractions. They will gradually become more frequent, stronger in intensity and length. If you are planning on having a hospital birth or using a birth center, this is the time to go in.
You may have been told what to expect during and the signs of labor, such as getting contractions, however for some women, labor progresses without following a textbook typical pattern. Listen to your body. As labor progresses and intensifies, you are likely to talk less. You might find that holding a conversation becomes increasingly difficult during contractions.
As labor continues, you may find that you lose your appetite and might start to feel hot or anxious. You will also most likely start feeling less inhibited and have less cares about what you’re doing.
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When should I call my midwife?
You’ve most likely had this conversation with your midwife about what to do when you think you are in active labor. If you’re not sure whether the time has come and you’re in active labor yet, don’t be embarrassed to give them a call. They are used to getting calls from women who are unsure about if they are in early or active labor or simply looking out for signs of labor.
They will want to know how you are feeling and what you’ve been experiencing, particularly how close together your contractions are and the length they go on. It’s not always easy for midwives to judge if you are in active labor over the phone, so trust what your body is telling you as well as taking guidance from your midwife.
If you have decided to give birth in a hospital or birth center, it’s important to call before you leave the house as your chosen unit may be busy. If they are busy, staff may ask you to stay home a little longer or redirect you to a different center. Prepare for the possibility of not having the exact birth you want, as this may save you some disappointment if it does happen.
When deciding if it’s time to leave the house take into consideration that it is a lot harder and slower to move around while you are having contractions, so getting from the front door to the car may take longer than expected. Once you have seen your midwife and they confirm you are in active labor, you will be admitted to a labor ward, or if you are having a home birth they will stay with you.
If you have any of these symptoms you should definitely call your midwife:
- You feel your baby moving less than usual
- Your waters break, or you suspect you’re leaking amniotic fluid
- You have severe headaches or changes in your vision
- Sudden swelling of the face, feet or hands
- You have vaginal bleeding (unless it’s just the blood-tinged mucus plug)
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Can I have contractions and not be in labor?
Braxton Hicks are pre-labor contractions that help your cervix go through the changes it needs to before it can start to dilate. Your cervix will get shorter and thinner and will start to move to a more forward pointing position (it usually points towards your back).
Over the last few weeks of your pregnancy, these changes may take place without you even noticing. Alternatively, you may experience cramps or contractions that last anywhere between a few hours or days. These cramps or contractions may be helping to progress the early changes in your cervix, even though they may not be dilating your cervix just yet.
A simple vaginal exam by your midwife is all that needs to be done to confirm that your cervix has started to change.