Pregnancy lasts an average of 40 weeks, and many women eagerly await their due dates. For some, it may begin to seem as if the baby will never arrive, especially when their due dates come and go without any sign of the baby. Whether a pregnant woman is still approaching her due date or awaiting a baby who is a bit tardy, there are some signs that may mean baby is on his way.
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Like pregnancy, each labor experience is different, and it may start off with varied signs and symptoms for each woman. However, many women experience lightening within a few weeks of labor. This occurs when the baby drops deeper into a woman's pelvis, relieving some of her shortness of breath. Besides feeling able to breathe easier, a woman may feel the urge to urinate more often, as the baby may put more pressure on the bladder, and she may notice a change in the appearance of her abdomen. Some women may also experience a burst of energy and a desire to clean and prepare things for the baby in the days and weeks leading up to labor. This is referred to as "nesting."
In the last weeks leading up to a woman's due date, her doctor will probably check her cervix for effacement, which is a thinning of the cervix that happens in preparation for delivery. The thinning of the cervix makes dilation easier. This process of thinning usually takes place some time in the month leading up to labor and deliver.
Dilation is another sign that labor may begin soon. This is the opening of the cervix that must occur for a baby to be born vaginally. It is measured in centimeters, and full dilation is 10 cm. When a woman is 10 cm dilated, she is ready to push her baby out of the birth canal. Often, doctors check for dilation in the weeks leading up to a woman's due date, and some women do dilate a couple of centimeters before they actually go into labor. However, this is not always a sign of impending labor, as a woman can go on for weeks after dilating a couple of centimeters without giving birth.
The opening of the cervix requires some protection from bacteria during pregnancy, and a thick plug of mucus handles this job. As the cervix begins to thin and dilate in preparation for labor, the mucus plug dislodges from its post. When this happens may vary. In some women, it may happen just minutes or hours before the onset of labor while others may experience it days before labor. The mucus plug may appear clear, or it may be streaked with blood, and some women do not notice it when it passes.
It is a misconception that labor always begins with a dramatic gush of amniotic fluid--fluid within the amniotic sac that protects and cushions the baby. In fact, according to the American Pregnancy Association, only about 10 percent of women have their amniotic sacs break with a big gush--referred to as the water breaking. Often, this happens while a woman is at home, and it may occur as a trickle of liquid instead of a large outpouring. In fact, some women may have trouble figuring out if they are leaking urine or amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid is usually odorless, but it is best to have a doctor evaluate any leaking fluid, just to be sure.
While many possible signs of labor can be misleading, one is very reliable: consistent contractions. One of the most reliable signs a woman is in labor is contractions that occur regularly, such as every 20 to 30 minutes. Early labor contractions can feel like menstrual cramping or pain in the lower back that happens at regular intervals. If you start to have contractions like these, time them and determine whether the time between them shortens. Many doctors ask laboring women to contact them or begin to make their way to the hospital when contractions are coming at 5-minute intervals.
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