Most pregnancies last between 37 and 40 weeks. Then, it's time for your baby's big entrance!
Labor contractions are the clearest indication that your body is getting ready to deliver your baby. When labor starts, your cervix (the lower end of the uterus) will open, and the uterus will begin contracting (or squeezing). The cervix must be thinned out in order for the baby's head to move into the birth canal.
How to know when labor has started
Each time a contraction occurs, your uterus and abdomen will become tighter and firmer. Between contractions, the uterus will soften, and you can relax for a short time while awaiting the next contraction.
Although most women know when they are nearing labor or when labor has started, it isn't always easy to tell when this process has begun. That's because "false labor" can occur. With false labor, contractions are sporadic and relatively weak. Still, don't be embarrassed to call your doctor or go to the hospital if you're uncertain whether this is the real thing!
With actual labor, you will experience:
Repeated contractions, cramps, and increases in pain levels corresponding to the opening (dilating) of your cervix and the baby's descent through the birth canal
A slightly bloody, pink, or clear vaginal discharge that is the mucus plug at the cervix
A breaking of your water, which is really a rupture in the amniotic sac that contains watery fluid that surrounds and protects your baby
As labor progresses, the contractions will become stronger. They'll also occur more often, and continue for about thirty to seventy seconds each. The pain of the contractions will tend to start in your back and then move forward to the lower abdomen.
When should you call your doctor or go to the hospital?
Hopefully you've already discussed this with your doctor. In general, you should head for the hospital or phone your doctor if:
- your water breaks (even if you aren't having contractions yet),
- you're experiencing vaginal bleeding,
- or the pain is severe and persistent even between contractions.
When labor is induced
Your doctor may induce labor before you go into labor on your own. Usually, this is because your health or the health of your baby may be at risk. Perhaps you have a chronic disease such as diabetes or high blood pressure that may pose risks to you or your child. Or your doctor may recommend inducing labor if tests indicate that your baby's growth is unusual.
With certain medications (such as oxytocin or prostaglandin drugs that may be given intravenously in the hospital), the mother will have contractions and her cervix will start to dilate and thin. The doctor can also intentionally rupture the membranes that surround the fetus or use other means to get labor started.