The Most Common Signs Labor is Imminent

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It’s the final countdown – after months of prep and planning, you’re finally in the home stretch of the pregnancy. And while these final weeks are filled with excitement and anticipation of the birth, it can be equally met with uncertainty over the unknown. When will I go into labor? In spite of the many secrets medical science has unlocked, we still don’t know exactly what sets things into motion for labor.

There are, however, a number of signs that labor is imminent – the understanding of which can hopefully pave the way for a smoother, more empowered birth.

Common signs of imminent labor

You are having more contractions.

Braxton Hicks contractions are common throughout pregnancy and generally aren’t cause for concern, but in the final weeks of pregnancy, they may become more frequent. They are typically described as irregular in intensity, infrequent, non-rhythmic, then taper off and disappear. You may feel discomfort similar to menstrual cramps during this process. It’s important to take special care to stay hydrated in the final weeks of pregnancy as well; dehydration can lead to more frequent contractions and, in turn, preterm labor.

Your cervix is changing.

Those Braxton Hicks contractions are for a purpose – they help your cervix begin to thin and widen, or dilate, to prepare for labor. In second and subsequent pregnancies, the cervix will often dilate a centimeter or two before labor begins. However, even at 40 weeks pregnant and one centimeter dilated, there is no guarantee that labor will begin imminently. As the cervix continues to dilate, you may pass your mucus plug. This is a small amount of thickened mucus that blocks the cervical canal during pregnancy. It may appear at one time or in the form of a discharge over several days, and it’s a good indication that labor is not far off.

Your water breaks.

One of the most obvious signs that labor is imminent is the breaking of the amniotic sack that has been surrounding the baby throughout the pregnancy. Rupturing can present as a single rush of fluid, or it can be a slow trickle over several hours. If you suspect it has broken, it’s important to contact your doctor or midwife for further instruction whether contractions have started or not. If the sac is no longer intact, there is a greater risk for infection and labor may need to be induced.

Can my doctor tell if I’m going into labor soon?

Not with 100 percent accuracy. Unless there are regular, active uterine contractions, only a best guess can be made. Your doctor or midwife can, however, use a few different measurements to determine if the baby is in optimal position for the upcoming delivery. First, they will confirm if the baby is in the occiput anterior position, which is head down and facing the mother’s back. This is considered the ideal placement for delivery, though occiput posterior – head down, facing front – and even breech position, where the baby’s feet or buttocks are down, can be acceptable for delivery. This is important information to have; if the baby is breech, the doctor may try to turn the baby or a c-section may ultimately be recommended.

What station is the baby engaged?

This is another factor your medical practitioner will consider in the final weeks of pregnancy. Fetal station is the where the baby is presenting in your pelvis - the part of the baby that leads the way through the birth canal. This is usually the head, but it can also be the buttocks, feet, or even a shoulder.

When the baby’s head is level with the ischial spines – the bony protrusions in the narrowest part of the pelvis - the fetal station is zero. Each change in number typically signifies that the baby has descended another centimeter into the pelvis.

Your medical practitioner will examine the cervix to determine the lowest part of the baby in relation to your pelvis.

A number from -5 to +5 (sometimes -3 to +3) is assigned to describe where the baby’s presenting part is located. The baby station chart breaks down to:

Score of -5 to 0: The “presenting” or part of the baby that can be felt is above the ischial spines, or nothing can be felt at all. This is also called “floating.”

Score of zero: The baby’s head is considered “engaged” or aligned with the ischial spines at zero station.

Score of 0 to +5: Once the baby has descended beyond the ischial spines, positive numbers are used. At birth, the baby is at +4 to +5 station.

While the number is an estimate, the baby will typically drop into the birth canal about two weeks before delivery.

Paying close attention to certain signs and signals your body may be giving you can provide clues to how close you are to the big day. Visit our blog for more tips and information about your pregnancy every step of the way.