Sometime around 30 weeks pregnant, you begin to look past your varicose veins and foot bloat and realize that sooner or later, somehow and in some way, that angry badger you’re housing in your abdomen is going to have to come out of your body. After you’ve done enough Googling to form a basic understanding of the mechanics of labor and delivery, you will still be left with the most pressing pregnancy question of all—is this random twinge or cramp or feeling labor, or is it gas?
Labor, like everything else that has to do with pregnancy, child-rearing, or being a human, is unique to the person experiencing it. Some women progress through the Signs of Labor check-list with OCD-like precision, while others feel no symptoms until they are doubled-over in the Costco parking lot with a head poking out between their legs. Plus, as I learned the hard way, labor can start and then stop, over and over, for a period of days or even weeks, like you’re under the spell of some comic book villain who plans to take over the world by driving women insane.
Many people will tell you that once you are truly in labor, “you’ll just know.” Those people are assholes. You may not just know, or you may know and be wrong, at least by the strictest definition of active labor. I had a very textbook start to my first labor, which began mid-38 weeks. My son dropped early, and his head was engaged by my 35-week appointment. I had Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout the third trimester, and they dutifully increased in strength, length, and frequency as the final weeks wore on. Back pain and cramps followed suit, and within 12 hours of my (first) trip to the hospital, I peered into the toilet and heard a voice in the back of my head announce in Michael Cain’s accent, “it’s the bloody show!” Then, of course, I proceeded to have the world’s longest labor, with contractions starting and stopping, growing longer and then shorter, for the next 60 hours, until my doctor mercifully faked a cervical check, announced I was sufficiently dilated, and ordered a nurse with a wheelchair to whisk me across the parking deck to the epidural palace.
Despite the individual variations, however, there are still a few signs you can obsess over in your final weeks that may or may not indicate that labor will begin sometime between this afternoon and three weeks from Thursday. As always, if you think you may be in labor, consult your doctor or midwife, and don’t be afraid to be wrong.
Possible Signs of Labor OR Food Poisoning
- Stable Weight or Weight Loss: If you are not me and have thus decided against the post-37-weeks All Cookie Diet, you may find that your weight gain slows, stops, or back-tracks in the final lap. Good for you—why don’t you go try to squeeze into your wedding gown in celebration while I make myself another sandwich.
- Restlessness/Energy Burst/Nesting: Another symptom that my inherent laziness has successfully combated for both pregnancies. I do recall a sort of a brain buzz or rush of adrenaline that accompanied the start of early labor with my first, and subconsciously I knew that I had reached the point where mama cats start shredding paper towels in the kitchen and surreptitiously dragging them into the closet to create a birthing bed in the laundry hamper. Building a nest, or watching a lot of HGTV, is our primitive brain’s sign that the show is about to begin.
- Increased Bathroom Visits: According to Science, all of the muscles in your body will begin to relax in preparation for the stretching and loosening and accommodating of human skulls that certain parts will soon have to do to deliver your baby. Relaxin is an equal-opportunity hormone, thus your stomach, intestines, and colon will join the party. I would compare this particular style of bodily house-cleaning to what happens when you eat too much Tex-Mex—not terribly aggressive in the way of tainted sushi, but thorough nonetheless.
- Losing the Mucus Plug/Bloody Show: Because hemorrhoids and nipple leakage aren’t gross enough, mother nature has prepared this special pregnancy capstone event to usher you into the house of horrors that is labor, delivery, and the post-partum era. In truth, the name is worse than the experience. Your mucus plug may come out over a period of days and thus be easy to confuse with all the other weird ick that’s been emerging from your body since last Easter, or it may come out all at once, appearing like a giant loogey in your toilet. It may be white, pink, or brown, but if it’s bright red or accompanies as much bleeding as your period, call your OB to check in. Bleeding throughout all of the stages of labor is pretty common and usually normal, but it’s one of those “better to be safe” symptoms.
- Water Breaking: According to Dr. Internet, only about 15% of women experience their water breaking before labor is well underway, but among my circle of friends, about 95% of them experience this one-way ticket to the L&D fast-lane. Your water may break in a huge splash like in the movies, or it may come in a slow, uncontrollable trickle, the way your pee will be doing for months after birth. Supposedly you can distinguish amniotic fluid from urine by the smell, but I’m not sure who really gets that up close and personal with her underwear this late in the pregnancy game. I was most surprised to learn that your water doesn’t just break once like a water balloon, it may continue gushing during each contraction for hours. If you are having a hospital birth, your water breaking starts the clock on your labor, so clean yourself up, slap on an adult diaper, and get yourself to your OB’s office or L&D within an hour or two.
- Contractions: Duh, right? Contractions are the most obvious sign that labor is imminent, but the problem is, no one can tell you what real contractions feel like. Last time around my doctor gave me the whole “5-1-1” rule, meaning I should call when my contractions were five minutes apart, lasting one minute each, for at least one hour. I am such an overachiever I waited until 5-1-2 before triumphantly showing up to the hospital, secretly gloating about my above-average pain tolerance, only to be told I was 1cm dilated and should go back home and wait another week like the rest of the sissies. This time around I will be following the “F-5-5-5” rule, meaning I will go to the hospital when I have said the work “fuck” at least five times in five minutes to five different people. They say that productive contractions grow stronger, more frequent, and more intense over time—but if you’ve been stuck in the purgatory of early labor for days and you just want an IV of narcotics and an Ambien to take the edge off, I recommend bursting into tears at the hospital admissions desk and hoping a nurse takes pity on you.
At the dawn of my third day of strong but irregular contractions with my first child, as I sat in a sleep-deprived haze in the recliner in our living room trying to remember to breathe, I realized that I was never, ever going to have this baby. It simply was not going to happen for me, and I was absolutely certain I would be stuck in that chair, unable to move or speak or sleep or wake up, for all eternity. In that moment, no one could have convinced me that a baby would soon emerge from my body—I had lost all capacity for rational thought. And that was the surest sign of all that active labor had finally begun. As a first-time mom, you won’t know until you know, whether that knowledge sets in before, during, or after labor is underway. So go ahead and do whatever your doctor tells you to do, because maybe you do have an above-average tolerance for pain, and no one wants to give birth in the back seat of her brand new Subaru Outback because she listened to my advice and waited too long to get moving.
Written by: Kathleen