It would be awesome if there were hard and fast rules that told you when your baby was coming, how long you had to get to the hospital, and whether everything with your wife’s labor looked normal. As you’ve no doubt already heard, every woman is different, and although the 10 signs of labor below apply to vast majority of childbirths, they may not represent yours, so if there is ever a moment when you’re not sure if the labor is happening or you’re concerned there could be something wrong for either your wife or baby, it’s always best to check in with your doctor or doula for advice.
1. Feeling of Lightness
After nine months of carrying a bowling ball around in her stomach, your wife may feel the surprisingly pleasant sensation of lightness as childbirth draw near. This is actually the experience of the baby “dropping,” according to the American Pregnancy Association, meaning it has moved deeper down into the pelvis, relieving the pressure on the diaphragm that causes discomfort for so many women. (On the other hand, it can now increase pressure on her bladder, meaning more nighttime trips to the bathroom in the final days.)
2. Braxton-Hicks Contractions Increase
Although they are commonly thought of as a sign of false labor, Braxton-Hicks contractions—intermittent, fluttering sensations that are usually painless — become more frequent and noticeable in the early stages of labor. Note: This doesn’t mean your wife is about to deliver. Only that she’s getting closer. She could still be hours — or days — away. Be patient.
3. Lower Back Pain Begins
Although it could be a sign of many things, including the sheer act of lugging around extra weight all day, many women experience lower back pain and menstrual-like cramping in the early stages of labor. This in and of itself should not send you to the hospital, but it is a caution flag that the fun may be about to start.
4. Longer, More Regular Contractions
The clearest evidence that labor is well and truly underway comes from contractions that are getting progressively longer, more regular, and closer together. “You’re looking for surges that come four or five minutes apart, that last several minutes,” says Cheryl K. Baker, founder of Los Angeles Birth Partners, a certified childbirth educator, and a doula who has delivered more than 1,000 babies.
5. Stronger Pain
One way to distinguish between true and false labor are contractions so strong that your wife cannot walk or talk through them. Mind you, “every labor is unique,” says Baker. “But in general, contractions get progressively more and more intense, requiring a woman’s complete attention as they happen.”
6. Loss of Appetite
Labor pains have a way of making the prospect of food less appealing. You can also expect that your wife may feel nauseous and thirsty as the labor begins. You can help with both by offering her natural ginger chews to ease the stomach upset, and a cup of ice chips to suck on as the labor progresses.
7. She’s Shivering
If it’s a sultry, hot summer day, and our wife is piling on the layers like you’re headed for the ski lodge, it could be an indication of labor. “The change in body temperature is caused by labor hormones,” explains Baker.
8. Her Water Breaks
This classic, tell-all sign can appear as a big gush, or it can happen in a slow, light stream. Either way, it’s a sign that the amniotic sac surrounding the baby has broken, meaning your kid is on the way! Normally, contractions begin before the water breaks. If that’s not the case, it’s important to head to the hospital anyway, since the “seal” around your baby is broken, raising the risk of possible infection.
9. “Bloody Show”
This sounds dramatic, but actually all it means is that the cervical plug has come loose, and there will be visible bleeding and also mucus in your wife’s underwear. It’s totally normal. What’s not normal: “Any fluid that is brown or greenish in color could indicate that the baby is having a tough time,” says Baker. Another sign of labor in distress: Passing large clots of blood. In either case, see your doc right away.
The classic countdown to the arrival of your new baby comes from dilation, a measurement of your wife’s cervix opening. This is as close as you’ll get to concrete real-time info on when it’s going to happen, but unfortunately, the only one who can accurately measure it is your doctor. Ten centimeters is considered fully dilated, signaling your baby is on its way.