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Preparing Yourself for Childbirth: How Do You Know You're in Labor?

This advice for expectant mothers can help them distinguish between false cues and true labor.
False Cues Versus Real Labor

Preparing Yourself for Childbirth: How Do You Know You're in Labor?

Momma Said There'd Be Days Like This

I almost worried myself out of having my doctor with me for my first delivery. I started having minor contractions in the evening and got all excited. The minor contractions were far apart, so when I called my doctor he jokingly said not to worry and to call him when I was really in labor. He told me later that he never expected me to take him seriously, but that's just what I did. Not wanting to bother him, I waited until the contractions were fast and furious before I called him again.

First-time moms all have one big question on their minds during those last few weeks before delivery: How do you know you are in labor?

Labor is not like anything you have experienced before. And your body sometimes gives you confusing cues—many women experience minor contractions, often called false labor, starting about a week before the baby actually comes. But believe me, when you're really in labor, you'll probably know it. And don't worry about feeling stupid if you think you are in labor and it turns out that you're not.

Early Warning Signals

Early labor can take many forms. Sometimes it doesn't feel like a contraction, but rather like pressure in your lower back, along your sides, or in front. The best thing to remember is that if you feel any strange physical sensations and it is about time for you to deliver, you should pay attention to those feelings.

Does the pain or pressure come and go with any regularity? If you are able to see a pattern that can be timed, you probably are in full labor. This doesn't mean you need to rush to the hospital right away—if the sensations come and go at fairly long intervals (more than 10 minutes apart), you can go through some of your early labor at home until the contractions are closer together and more productive. You can walk around your house and lie on your bed in a familiar setting before you move to the next level.


External and internal fetal monitors predict when a contraction will come and show how strong it is. They also monitor the baby's heart rate to determine how the baby is doing during the entire process.

What's Going on Here!

When your contractions are ten minutes apart, notify your doctor. When they are five minutes apart, get into your car. Every delivery is different but you can be pretty certain that contractions coming five minutes apart mean that your body is working toward the final push.

Of course, the idea of “final push” is a relative one. You can have labor like this for a long time. Some women get stuck at the five-minutes-between-contractions point and may even need medication to bring on stronger, more efficient contractions. This is why your nurse will monitor your contractions with a contraption called a fetal monitor, and will do internal exams to determine how you are coming along.

The Final Push

At some point your doctor or nurse will do an internal exam and say you are “dilated to 10.” This means you are getting ready to push the baby out—it does not mean the baby now pops out like a piece of toast. The act of pushing the baby through the birth canal can take quite a while and can be very tiring. Listen carefully to your delivery nurse: She'll tell you when to push and when not to push. You may find it hard to do as she says—sometimes your body fights against you. But do your best—if you push in a planned way, each push is more productive. This makes your labor more efficient, which is better for you and for the baby.

When it comes time for that final push, you will bear down and feel something similar to the sensation of having a bowel movement. You may feel a complete loss of dignity at this point, but this is no time to be self-conscious.

When baby's head crowns it will most likely be time for the final push. Unless the baby is turned around, its head will come out, then its shoulder, and then you will feel the most amazing sensation as the baby is born. It is one of the most glorious moments of life.

Meeting Baby

Momma Said There'd Be Days Like This

I remember my first time—and not knowing what to do. The nurse tried to explain breast-feeding to me and said, “Let the baby show you.” Sure enough, I held her close to my breast and she wiggled her little mouth to the nipple and started to suckle. It was as simple as that. The baby knew what to do and all I had to do was follow nature.

With delivery over, you'll be moved to a recovery room. After the baby has been cleaned up, she'll be brought to you, and your nurse will tell you that your newborn is ready for her first meal.

When it's time to go to your room and the nurses take the baby to the nursery, you may feel sad. This is normal. You and the baby have been attached for a long time, and you may find that any separation is hard to take. But the periods of separation will be short—the nurses will bring your baby in to nurse or to bottle feed, and you'll be able then to marvel at her and snuggle with her. You'll also probably enjoy the most peaceful sleep you've had in months.

The first hours and days of motherhood are yours and are very important. You may feel very protective of your bonding time and prefer not to share this time with visitors. Do not be shy about setting boundaries for the amount of time you're willing to spend with well-meaning relatives and friends. If you are direct about your feelings, people will understand.

On the other hand, you may welcome support and company. Having a new baby is a mental adjustment and first-time moms, especially, may be feeling a little inadequate right now. There's no real need to fear—the nurses at your hospital will teach you everything you need to know about early infant care—but there is nothing like friends and family to show you the way.

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